Women in the Law

Legal Secretary Study's Findings Spark Controversy, Engender Debate

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Please see this note from the ABA Journal Board of Editors.

There are four patterns of gender bias, according to University of California at Hastings law professor Joan Williams. There is one she calls “gender wars”—when gender bias against women turns into conflict among women. It is, by far, the most controversial.

Williams knows from experience. She was discussing the gender wars pattern at a conference for women lawyers, she recalls, when a woman got up in front of the audience of several hundred people, questioned Williams’ research, and demanded a retraction.

“This is extremely controversial to talk about because people fear it will feed the story line that women’s problems stem not from gender bias but because they undercut each other all the time,” says Williams, who is director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings law school. “I think it’s important to talk about this pattern of gender bias openly to make clear that it’s not just women being catty, it’s that environments shaped by gender bias tend to pit women against each other.”

The ABA Journal spoke to Williams and other experts as a follow-up to a story posted last week that provoked a similar reaction. The story was headlined “Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working with Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why.” It reported on a recently published survey (conducted in 2009) of 142 secretaries at larger law firms and highlighted a question about whether the secretaries preferred to work for male or female lawyers.

Forty-seven percent had no opinion, a statistic that Williams says is important to emphasize. As for the others, 35 percent preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates and 3 percent preferred working for female associates. None preferred working for female partners.

A firestorm of controversy followed. There were calls for a retraction. Critics said the headline was sensationalistic and distorted the survey results, because nearly half the secretaries had no opinion about the gender of their bosses. The story, they said, emphasized one small finding in a much bigger study. Others questioned whether the study was scientifically reliable. The Forbes blog She Negotiates, the first publication to report on the survey findings, ran a story on the hubbub headlined “Women Lawyers Demand Apology for Sexist Coverage by the ABA Journal.”

Among those raising objections is Mary Cranston, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. She says the ABA Journal headline played into stereotypes by suggesting that women bosses are more difficult. “Going down that path on the sensational side was disconcerting,” Cranston says, emphasizing that half of those surveyed selected no opinion.

Batlan’s study was nuanced, and that needs to be made clear, she adds.

Any good journalist is going to stir controversy from time to time, Cranston says. But she believes the ABA Journal needs to maintain trust with the membership by displaying a sensitivity to gender bias research.

The ABA Journal story had plucked the survey result from a 40-page article written by Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan for Emerald Insight (purchase req.). Legal secretaries who completed the 73-question survey online had been invited to participate over the Internet and through Batlan’s friends and colleagues. Batlan acknowledged “methodological problems” with such a survey in her article. But she noted a couple factors that helped reliability, including this one: The survey required a significant time commitment, which meant it was unlikely people would respond more than once.

The survey finding didn’t surprise Victoria Pynchon, who authors She Negotiates. Pynchon began her legal career as a typist at a midsize Manhattan law firm in 1975. Eventually she became a paralegal, and then, in the early 1980s, a lawyer. One law firm that hired Pynchon as a newbie lawyer told her that none of the secretaries in the office wanted to work for a woman, but one had reluctantly agreed to do so. “As time passed,” Pynchon says, “that began to change so not everyone said they didn’t want to work for women lawyers, but it never completely vanished.”

In Pynchon’s view, the survey highlights a bigger problem. “I think your story was so controversial because you named the elephant in the room,” says Pynchon, who is currently a mediator and an arbitrator. “And the elephant in the room is not the relationship between women and their secretaries. The elephant in the room is that the legal profession is deeply and intractably biased against women. And women lawyers can’t talk about it. It’s a toxic topic. If you talk about gender bias in a law firm, you will be punished for it. You will suffer ridicule, shock, denial. You will be labeled a whiner or a troublemaker or, God forbid, a feminist.”

Both Williams and Pynchon mentioned a point Batlan makes in her study. Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries want to work for those in power. At the top 200 law firms, only about 15 percent of equity partners are women, Pynchon points out. “Your destiny is tied to the person you work for,” Pynchon says. “And the people with power in a law firm are still primarily men. So that’s a very good reason, whether it’s conscious or not conscious, it’s a very good reason to pick men to work for.”

Williams and Pynchon also say that some legal assistants, just like members of every other group in the world, can make judgments influenced by bias. “I can tell you in my experience I have worked for just as many crazy, angry, out-of-control demeaning male lawyers as women lawyers,” Pynchon says. The office bully comes in both genders, she says.

But the stereotype is different, Pynchon says. “Women lawyers are culturally stereotyped as being aggressive, difficult, mean, demanding.”

Williams sees the negative stereotypes playing out in some of the comments to the original ABA Journal article—including the idea that women are too emotional. Williams agreed to speak to the ABA Journal before she read Batlan’s article because of a tight editing deadline. She cautions that her comments are based on the prior article at ABAJournal.com and the online comments that were posted. Nor has she reviewed the methodology of Batlan’s study.

“When a man gets upset, that’s seen as understandable,” Williams says. “He’s just concerned about quality. But when a woman gets upset, the same display can be seen as evidence that she’s just too emotional.” Williams cites studies showing that displays of anger in the workplace increase a man’s status, but decrease a woman’s status. Other studies have shown that women who deliver unwelcome feedback in evaluations are seen as having personality problems, but the same is not true for men.

Williams points out other factors that could have played a role in the survey findings. Sometimes there is conflict between women who hold traditional views of women’s roles and those with less traditional views, Williams says. Sometimes there are class conflicts.

Legal secretaries are often just as smart as the lawyers, but they don’t have law degrees because of class differences. “Often men are inured or cushioned from this class conflict because of the [stereotype] that it’s natural for a man to hold authority over a woman,” Williams says.

Williams and Pynchon see the controversy as an opportunity for more discussion—and progress.

“I think you’ve done us all a service,” Pynchon tells the ABA Journal, “because you’ve seen the elephant in the room, and it has aroused anger, which can be used as a reason to talk about something that we don’t allow ourselves to talk about. Gloria Steinem said, ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.’ ”

Williams hopes to address solutions in an upcoming book called The New Girls’ Network.

Meanwhile, Batlan hopes to explore the issues in a larger, follow-up study. The ABA Journal offered Batlan a chance to fill in the details about her survey in a question-and-answer format.

Here’s an edited Q&A:

ABA Journal: Why did you decide to study legal secretaries?

Batlan: The article that ran in the ABA Journal focused on women lawyers’ relationship with legal secretaries. My article was much broader, and it sought to explore how legal secretarial work has changed over time as well as changing paradigms regarding how legal secretaries perceive themselves and how others perceive them.

I was originally asked to write an article for an academic journal on large law firms. Although everyone expected me to write about women lawyers, there is already a rich academic literature on women in law firms which shows the numerous burdens and obstacles that women lawyers face. I thought that I would also find some scholarship on legal secretaries, but in fact there is very little published. This forced me to conduct some of my own research. The survey that I used consisted of 73 questions, and I sought to hear and understand the voices of legal secretaries.

ABA Journal: What do you view as the most important finding or findings of your study?

Batlan: Some of my most important findings show how legal secretaries understand themselves to be part of the legal profession and how they are proud of their substantive knowledge of the law. Legal secretaries had good reasons for their decision to enter the profession, which included not just compensation but their desire to work with smart people and their interest in law. Secretaries also still face significant difficulties such as lack of opportunity to be promoted. Moreover the recession has greatly impacted legal secretaries, as support staff are often the first people cut. Looking at the big picture, my work was interested in understanding power and hierarchies within large law firms and who is perceived as having expertise and knowledge and how it is valued.

ABA Journal: Why do you think that legal secretaries who expressed a preference said they preferred to work for men?

Batlan: Obviously the controversial part of the study as it emerged in the media was some of the responses regarding the relationship between women lawyers and legal secretaries. I believe that this is not about individual behavior but rather questions of perceptions and power. It is still the case that male partners have more power in large law firms than women lawyers, and it stands to reason that secretaries/assistants want to work for the people with the most power. Likewise, whether we like it or not, it still can be difficult for a woman to wield power and authority. As my article reasons, to the extent women act like men, they are viewed as illegitimate. To the extent that they do not, they are viewed as inferior. This can be a double-bind.

At bottom, I want us as lawyers to think about how we create a more fair and less hierarchical workplace that allows people to maximize their potential. On one level, the problem is institutional but on another level, as individuals, we have the power to change things and engage in open and honest dialogue.

I was recently speaking to a woman in her 90s who was an attorney. She reminded me that when she graduated from law school in the 1940s the only job open to her was as a secretary in a law firm. Has change occurred? Yes. Does gender still matter in a host of ways? Yes.

ABA Journal: Are you doing additional research? What would you like to find out?

Batlan: As my article repeatedly stated, my findings and analysis were just a beginning. I am hoping to conduct a larger study in which I interview lawyers and nonlawyers about the structure of law firms, the role of legal secretaries/assistants, how power operates, and the assumptions behind it. I am especially interested in differences between large and small firms and firms that have a balance between men and women lawyers. What I hope comes out of this is an examination of all of our stereotypes and how they operate within law firms. Only by bringing problems into the open can we address them.

Updated Nov. 23 to include link to letter from the ABA Journal Board of Editors.

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