Law in Contemporary Society
When we were discussing Cerriere's Answer today, I thought Jessica brought up an interesting point about how women sometimes worry that they come across as "too edgy" when they speak. (Jessica, please correct me if I didn't accurately understand what you were saying). A female friend of mine here has mentioned this very issue to me on a couple occasions. She claims that female students, more often than male students, have a tendency to ask questions instead of make statements, of if they make a statement to soften it with a qualification such as "I feel like...."

Coincidentally, an article posted today on CLS' homepage mentions this as well. Professor Carol Sanger was honored at The Columbia Law Women’s Association annual Myra Bradwell Dinner, and this is a small excerpt from her speech:

“It is my sense and I hate to say, my experience, that women are still often reticent to claim and to aspire to accomplishment. To give but two minor examples, I rarely hear men in class start a question with the apology that “This may be a stupid question, but ….” And I almost never hear men turn a declarative statement into a question by tilting the sentence upward at the end.

These may not be perfect examples but they do to some extent represent a degree of lack of confidence. To claim accomplishment or authority takes ambition and somehow ambition is not ladylike.”

If there are others in the class that feel this way I think it would be valuable to hear why. Are there things that male students in particular do to perpetuate this, or is it just a product of larger social pressures that extend beyond the classroom?

-- DanKarmel - 21 Apr 2010

My own opinion is that Sanger goes a bit too far-- I do not believe such behavior necessarily reflects lack of confidence or ambition. I would say that perhaps female students speak the way they do in class because they are more aware of how nuanced the particular topic is upon which they are commenting. Why women want to provide the "correct" answer while men are satisfied with throwing out their "opinion" is surely the result of some society-ingrained process I won't try to speculate upon here. Isn't this a possibility, too?

On a final note, I have often been called out on for not being "ladylike." And yet, if I chose to behave "ladylike," say, in front of a powerful man with an eye to obtaining a job, that would be criticized. Except then I would be called a "whore" or a "slut," using my feminine prowess for evil. Whatever.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 21 Apr 2010

From my experience of participating in and coaching mock trial for seven years I found a pretty glaring catch-22 for females as trial attorneys. Judges would criticize female attorneys for one of two things more than anything else. The first was if a woman was assertive to the extent that a man would be on a given cross-examination judges (practicing attorneys and judges) would claim she was far over the top. One judge (female) even claimed that one of my attorneys needed to "tone down the bitch." However, on the same cross a male attorney from the team who was even more aggressive would be praised for "going for the jugular." The catch-22 was that if the female attorneys "tone[d] down the bitch," they would inevitably be told that their cross was not effective, even when they elicited the same or better information, because they were too soft.

Taking these together I came to the conclusion that the circular system being played by sexism was that a women should never be aggressive, and to not be aggressive (particularly in certain situations) in the courtroom was ineffective. Thus, the sexist judge was always able to maintain (at least subconsciously if you give them benefit of the doubt) the notion that female attorneys were inevitably less effective than their male counterparts.

-- RobLaser - 21 Apr 2010

Dan, I really don't know how to answer the initial question about why women may answer with less certainty, but my instinct is to agree with Kalliope's suggestion that there's a societal influence going on, here. Perhaps women in the classroom reflect a stereotype of the "soft" woman, not wanting to appear "too edgy" because they don't want to seem aggressive or, well, bitchy. I have seen way more men being outright confrontational, bordering on accusatory, to professors with whom they don't agree. I have seen men raise their voices much more than women, and I think overall the men in my classes seem to participate more. I can't speak for every woman, but for me I never actively think about these issues or the fact that I'm a woman while in class - usually I don't participate much in class because of what I see as personal traits - I don't like speaking in public, I'm intimidated by being "wrong", etc. But this conversation makes me wonder if, despite never actively thinking about it, being a woman has to do with my own attitude in class. I like to think it's not because I'm a woman, but it's difficult to analyze ingrained gender roles as they play out in yourself.

I was at a party once and a man (a lawyer), in some BS discussion about how people this year will struggle to find jobs (etc etc) told me that good-looking women will be "fine." Needless to say, he really pissed me off, and I felt like I'd come face to face with a reality that was pretty upsetting. So I wonder how much this comes into play - do women, knowingly or not, refrain from being aggressive because in doing so, they sacrifice some of the benefits of their femininity? Even if they could get away with being aggressive and respected, is acting "edgy"and confrontational something women avoid out of a belief that they'll be better off, instead, taking advantage of their looks and womanhood? It's disturbing, if true.

-- JessicaHallett - 21 Apr 2010

I really meant what I said yesterday - I'm glad it has been reopened on the wiki. I am guilty of including the qualifying "I'm not sure if this makes sense" in my comments very often. I'd like to think it's because I understand how complex issues presented in class are and because I am being sensitive of using my classmates' time (in a sense), but my gut tells me it's because I'm a woman.

Jessica, your retelling of a conversation between you and the lawyer made want to puke. Probably due to the fact that I've heard that sort of thing so many times.

Back to our conversation yesterday -- I would think that ten or twenty years ago a very successful female attorney would be afforded even more respect than she is now (i.e. because she MADE IT). Our law school class is split almost evenly between men and women. I think the sheer number of women in the profession may make these issues even more difficult, in the sense that there are more women out there with whom to be compared. (eh?)

-- JessicaCohen - 21 Apr 2010

I'm just realizing the irony in saying "I really don't know how to answer the initial question about why women may answer with less certainty, but..."

Jess, I agree that there's a weirdness to the fact that when women were just entering into a field they may have gotten more support for doing something that seemed unusual, but may still face new difficulties when they are no longer a minority in the field. I wonder if that has to do with (some) men not seeing women as a "real" threat when they're outliers, but then undergoing a shift in attitude when women are a consistent presence and thus persistent competitors in a field that's already very competitive.

-- JessicaHallett - 21 Apr 2010

Jess Hallett, that comment makes me want to puke too. I have heard some iteration of it so many times, and it makes me highly uncomfortable. I attended a firm event earlier this semester and realized about ten minutes into a conversation with a partner that he was hitting on me. Talk about gross. To call such treatment undermining is not even to begin to capture the way I felt. I'm not investing time and (gargantuan) sums of money in my education to be treated like a sexual object, especially not in a professional setting. But maybe I'm naive. Even in Lawyerland, female appearance gets a lot of attention. Robinson describes both the DA and the young lawyer he bumps into on the street with reference to their appearance.

Both Jessicas: the playing field has certainly changed. My mom began her law career in the late 70s/early 80s. She is a trial attorney, and has some war stories that I find shocking. Judges would refer to her as "Missy" or "Honey" and call her by her first name rather than "Counsel." She had to wear a skirt or a dress to court, never pants, and these absurd ruffly tie thingies. She fought tooth and nail for respect and to succeed, and she did. I know for a fact that her adversaries have called her "bitch," or worse. But now they are scared to go up against her, and most of her cases settle. I think she was up against far greater gender-related challenges than I am, but those challenges were visible and she wasn't afraid to confront them. How do you tackle the subtle discrimination from a man who treats a professional event like a place to pick up women? What do you do about it if you think it helped you get a job? Sounds like a good recipe for self-hatred.

I would also like to note that I feel weird and creepy even mentioning that interaction with the partner, even though I know for a fact that I'm not at fault in the situation. I still feel implicated in a troubling way - that's a hard feeling to shake, and I don't know whether it's societal or personal to me.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 21 Apr 2010

I can't help but think that Rob's example of the female judge's comments point to a vicious cycle. As a lot of people have been discussing, there is a perceived problem of how to balance femininity with aggressiveness. The women that succeed in the law often tend to be the aggressive ones that play 'the man's game' well, and as such once they get to the higher levels they look for other women who do the same. Thus, only the women who play the game can climb the ladder, even once other women are already there, because the women that are there are looking for the same aggressive qualities which allowed them to succeed.

To me, the problem is why the 'right' amount of aggressiveness is the standard. In contracts last semester, we talked about the idea that the law does not need to be such an adversarial system, but could be more cooperative, a model promulgated by feminist legal scholars. The question then becomes why there is an assumption that the man's way of doing it is what the woman needs to emulate (as others have discussed, a difficult thing to do), and how to overcome that presumption. How to do it I have no idea- it seems like the law fits into Veblen's primitive society, where some work becomes men's work and others women's work (with law, like any other fighting, traditionally being men's). How do we turn what was considered 'men's' work into gender-neutral work, where the tendencies of one gender are as acceptable as the other? And even if we could level the playing field as lawyers so that 'going for the jugular' was not necessarily the expectation, how would litigators overcome the jury's tendency to find the aggressive male norms more persuasive than the cooperative female norms because of wider societal expectations? (FYI- I know plenty of women will say they do not meet these norms, but I'm just using the limited knowledge I have of feminist legal scholarship so please correct me if I'm wrong)

-- RorySkaggs - 22 Apr 2010

It’s not just older law firm partners who make such comments as that a girl will be fine as long as she’s pretty. A male law student had voiced the same idea, which was irritating. And older female law students seeking to reassure. It does seem true though, that women, more so than men, have the option of counting on a spouse. My bureau at the DA’s office has a five to one female to male ratio and even my supervisors at a human rights organization have commented on that the non-profit world is largely staffed by women. I kind of assumed this was due to women feeling less need for stability and savings, but maybe women are just more altruistic, or have been pushed out of the private sector?

Work becomes gender neutral when the quality of individual's performances can be evaluated in a completely objective way. The influence of gender assumptions and expectations in the evaluation of one's work as a lawyer, especially in public legal performance, is particularly difficult to overcome because the legal system is so heavily reliant on the judgments and perceptions of people. A phenomenon seen within immigrant groups striving to be successful and recognized is an overwhelming preference for quantitatively evaluated subjects. Medicine, engineering, etc, when the results are much less reliant others’ perceptions. A repaired heart is a repaired heart whether the surgeon had a Middle Eastern accent or not. There is little a female lawyer can do to persuade a client to hire her when he believes implicitly and unalterably that men make better lawyers. She will have to prove herself beyond the standards applied to successful men. And learn to not care the names and judgments muttered about her, except, of course, that of judges and juries.

-- CeciliaWang - 15 Jul 2010

Cecilia, what you say about objective evaluation standards as gender neutral is true, but this assumes that the evaluations themselves occur on an even playing field. For example, consider those studies where women perform worse than men on math tests, but only after they've been told that men generally are better at math. Similarly, evaluating lawyers in some objective way might prove fruitless if, for example, the female lawyers are only placed to work on certain projects/ cases or are made to believe certain things to begin with.

I thought your parallel to immigrants was interesting. I always figured the reason some immigrants strove for those careers was because doing so signified an improvement in their social status, a justification for essentially abandoning their mother country. But this is a tangent for another thread...

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 16 Jul 2010

I recently had a very heated conversation about gender politics in large law firms with some young associates. The general concensus was that life in the profession -- not just a firm -- is difficult for most young lawyers, but it is an especially steep uphill climb for women lawyers. Kalliope, I think you are absolutely correct; especially in the junior ranks, what kind of work one is assigned usually has a weak correlation with the quality of their work product. Instead, it can be largely based on the "connection" the partner perceives he/she has with the associate. I guess I can brush up on my Godfather parlance (as I was advised to do), or feign an interest in sports, so I can have something extra in common with male attorneys. To me, though, it just doesn't seem worth it. This is further complicated by sentiments from male partners that any perceived roadblocks women feel they have are "in their heads", and by female partners whose own path bears no resemblence to the one they espouse in women group lunches and cocktail parties.

As with anything, a large part of the answer is to perfect one's craft and be the best, or as close to the best as possible, at whatever it is that one does. However, until women in positions of power begin to shift the paradigm, I do not envision much change taking place. Part of that shift begins with conversations like these -- not just among women at "how to be a successful woman in the legal world" luncheons, but between men and women. Until that happens, the perceived barriers will continue to reside "in our heads".

-- JenniferGreen - 21 Jul 2010



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