• Fern Lee

How to handle working for a woman partner at work - breaking through bias in law firms



I've heard many female clients say that having a woman boss is the worst. They tend to be nasty back-stabbers who don't support other women. Is this true? Are women really that mean to other women at work?


In a recent, book that exposes unconscious bias in law firms called It's not you, it's your workplace, authors Andrea Kramer and Al Harris reveal the results of their investigation from interviews, surveys and empirical evidence they have researched. As the name suggests, it's not the woman but the workplace culture that is at fault.


Women, especially those in very male-dominated industries like law firms, are caught between a rock and a hard place. The culture in these industries tends to be very masculine - a workplace dominated and controlled by men, operated in accordance with highly masculine norms and expectations. These firms create standards that are easy for men to meet and often difficult for women to achieve.


For example, because most senior leadership is male, senior women feel the need to distance themselves from junior women to be part of the in-group Junior women looking up to senior women also end up expecting them to be their mother or sister in arms, not a supervisor or boss. As a result, junior women might find that senior women are catty or "un-nurturing" towards them and assume they don't have an ally.


Another bias that comes into play in a highly masculine workplace is the way professional relationships are handled. When a man disagrees with another man, it is viewed as part of workplace relationships and working towards a common goal where differing views are part of the norm.


But when a woman disagrees with another woman, everyone wants to turn it into something dramatic, that it is somehow a blemish on their personality and character rather than simply a difference of opinion and just wanting to get the job done.


Such organizations also perpetuate the culture of men keeping their professional lives separate from their personal lives simply because men do not have the responsibility of the household. 75% of senior men in law have a stay at home partner who takes charge of the household and children compared to 10-15% of senior women who have a stay at home partner doing the same.


In reality, women are unable to keep their work and home life separate because of their responsibilities. However, there is no provision in such firms to support women. I have experienced this myself when my then boss advised me to quit law to take care of my family as they were 'unable' to provide me with the accommodations I was seeking.


Therefore, there is tension and pressure put on women in the workplace that men don't experience.


Many of us also bring in our own unconscious biases into the workplace, biases that we have formed from a very young age. And especially in a highly masculine workplace, those biases tend to be around the role a woman plays in society. Implicit bias affects even the well-intentioned people and acknowledging this is crucial to how we can bring about a solution to this issue.


How can we change this? Women can understand each other better by having conversations and sharing information with each other, putting ourselves into each other's shoes and making an effort to be honest.


Information is powerful and by sharing it with one another, we can strengthen our position and build allies.


We also can't solve our own problems. We need to find and enlist the help of male allies. Some men would like to be allies, they just don't have a clue what to do. It's having those conversations that is honest and will be different but it is about having such conversations.


There is no one solution to this problem of gender bias, but a continuing conversation we can have, so the key is to continually have these conversations, even though they may be difficult and imperfect.


We also have to ensure that our organizations do not allow biases to affect career-enhancing decisions. We can do this by making sure that the policies and procedures in our organizations are not perpetuating the culture that they have today. We have to hold people accountable, more than just feel-good statement organizations put out. Acknowledge that implicit and unconscious bias is there and find a way to break them.


Building alliances with each other and with men, and holding our organizations accountable are what we can do for ourselves, and our daughters and the generations of women that will be after us.







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