Career advancement is often a challenge for women lawyers. Although laws prohibit gender inequality in the workplace and policies for gender equity have been adopted by law employers, much of the advancement challenge for women is up to them to solve.
The truth underlying the challenge is that career advancement is much harder for most women than for most men, and that certainly is true in the law profession. If it were not true, the percentage of female equity partners would far surpass the 20% that it is today and has been for awhile. While it also is true that some of that low percentage is the result of the choices that women lawyers make in pursuit of work-life balance, there are other factors at work in limiting advancement opportunities for women lawyers.
Some of the struggles for women are laid out in the book How Women Rise by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen. Topics explored there include:
- Reluctance to claim achievements;
- Expecting others to notice and reward contributions;
- Building rather than leveraging relationships;
- Failing to enlist allies;
- Putting a job before a career plan;
- Demanding perfection; and
- Placing too much value on the desire to please.
All of these topics are worth considering in formulating a career plan. All of them can stand in the way of career advancement, and all of them can be painful to address. But you have to do it because no one is going to do it for you. Although a really effective mentor can help you think through some of these issues, you have to do the heavy lifting.
But there is another challenge that is so critical that it makes some of the others pale by comparison because it is so hard to overcome. My friend Andie Kramer and her husband and co-author Al Harris, two lawyers in Chicago, have addressed this problem in their book Breaking Through Bias. In that book and in their blogs at andieandal.com, they discuss how women seeking to advance in traditionally male fields, especially, face two particular types of biases, negative bias and agentic bias.
Negative bias for women derives from traditional feminine stereotypes that a woman is or should be “communal,” meaning warm, caring and gentle. Such women are seen as pleasant but unsuited for jobs requiring competence, competitiveness and authority.
Even more important, if a woman violates those traditional female stereotypes and behaves with authority, competence and independence, she is likely to be seen as aggressive, abrasive and bossy. And we all know what other “B word” will be ascribed to her then. This is called agentic bias and it comes with some harsh realities.
Andie and Al call dealing with these biases and their realities the Goldilocks Dilemma. Not too soft, but not too hard. Not too hot, but not too cold. And the double bind created by the intersection of negative and agentic biases is one you need to understand. Without understanding it, you will be unnecessarily handicapped in your efforts toward advancement and leadership.