Gender Bias and Women Attorneys

So much has changed about women in corporate roles since I first began practicing as a young lawyer in California in the 1990s. But, while increasing numbers of women graduate from law schools, this fact has not moved the needle very much as regards the number of women leaders in law firms. I ask myself, what keeps women from moving into leadership positions, and most important, what can we do about it?

This is a multi-pronged and complex issue, and I wouldn’t dare try to address it all in a short essay. But one of the most urgent issues I see is the expectations we place on women to change to fit the mold of male-dominated workplaces and industries. In my experience, these expectations have often undermined the confidence of our younger peers and affected their ability to be effective advocates for themselves in the workplace.

Women often are made to feel that they should try to be someone they aren’t. Conventional wisdom tells young women to be more aggressive, more like a man, or to lean into traditional femininity and be attentive but silent. But anyone who puts her whole being into negating who she is cannot fully manifest her talents and abilities. A woman who is comfortable being herself is naturally more confident, more earnest and, frankly, more effective.

But we can’t expect younger women to instantly know themselves and understand their place in an organization without example and direction. There is an unfortunate drought of women sponsors and mentors in the workplace. And even in the face of willing guidance, I find that women in junior roles are sometimes afraid to talk about challenges and difficulties they encounter for fear that they will be viewed as weak or complaining. It’s a cycle that must be broken.

So what can we do? We can make the workplace open to all types of women. What some may view as weak might actually be subtly persuasive or better at building consensus. So I challenge all of us to rethink our preconceptions. I urge more experienced women to get to know a younger colleague, not because she is a carbon copy of our expectations of how a woman should be, but because she is different and that difference adds value.

Mentorship is the gift that keeps on giving. You will be surprised by how something as simple as a listening ear can have a deep effect on the work life of a young woman. And you’ll be doubly surprised to see how when you open yourself up—without preconceptions—to your younger colleagues, you start to see the bigger picture, and things start to change.