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It’s a problem no one wants to talk about, and yet it is one of the greatest barriers to the advancement of women attorneys. Carolyn Buck Luce, co-chair for Ernst & Young’s Professional Women’s Network in the Northeast and leader of its Global Pharmaceutical Sector calls it “the Goldilocks problem.” “Women attorneys are criticized for being too little of this or too much of that; not confident enough or too confident; not aggressive enough or too aggressive; not ambitious enough or too ambitious. But women are seldom just right,” said Luce, who also chairs the “Hidden Brain Drain,” a task force that helps employers retain women. The root of the problem is gender bias, and virtually all of us are offenders. Our biases are often unconscious. They operate automatically, distorting information and reinforcing themselves by giving salience to information that is consistent and dismissing that which is not. As a result, our biases skew our first impressions of others, our judgments about their competence, and which facts we recall about their performance. But when are women vulnerable to gender bias and how do we remove it from our decision-making? The problem begins with how we view success. The qualities associated with success in law, like other historically male-dominated professions, are defined in stereotypical masculine terms. A successful attorney or businessman is aggressive, assertive and competitive. He’s decisive and authoritative. He has unflagging dedication to his career. But stereotypical female qualities seem at odds with this definition of success. Both men and women judge professional effectiveness according to these gender stereotypes. Women professionals are considered superior at stereotypical female “take care” behaviors like team-building, but men are viewed superior at stereotypical masculine “take charge” behaviors like delegating and influencing superiors, according to the 2005 study “Women ‘Take Care,’ Men ‘Take Charge’: Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed” by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization that works to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work. Unfortunately for women, “take charge” behaviors are those associated with success in male-dominated professions like law. As leaders of the legal profession, men also are presumed to be more competent, but lower status groups like women are implicitly assumed to be less competent, said Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist and the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, an organization providing career coaching to women attorneys. Several psychological studies have found that women leaders are judged more negatively than equally skilled men in male-dominated fields but equally competent in female-dominated fields. Because we tend to remember information that confirms our presumptions, errors committed by female attorneys may be more salient and therefore more likely to be remembered than those committed by male attorneys, who are presumed more competent. However, research shows few characteristics on which men and women differ along gender lines. Surveying more than 40 studies, researchers found little difference between women and men’s leadership styles, according to the 2005 Catalyst study. Still, stereotypes regarding male and female professional abilities remain. “When a moment of low confidence or uncertainty comes from a man, who we presume to be naturally confident, we are more likely to dismiss it than when it comes from a woman, who doesn’t benefit from the same presumption,” said Ostrow. When a woman seems uncertain, speaking softly or using qualifiers, her behavior may reinforce the belief that she is not sufficiently assertive or confident. Supervisors may even begin to question her competence, interpreting a hesitant style as questionable ability. “My friend was told during her review [at a New York City firm] that her work was excellent but her speaking style made her sound ‘unintelligent,’” said an attorney who has worked at two national firms. She explained that her friend frequently uses qualifiers and couches her statements as questions. Often, women face criticisms and questions of ability that “tend to be about assumptions and expectations regarding appropriate style rather than about the quality of a woman’s work-product,” said Luce. For example, if a woman is a consensus-builder and solicits her team’s opinion, she may be described as weak. If a woman is friendly or easy-going, colleagues may question whether she is capable of tough negotiation. Even criticisms that seem gender-neutral, for example, if a woman is viewed as insufficiently proactive or responsive, may be the product of bias and selective recall of information consistent with stereotypes. Women attorneys “walk a fine line,” noted Ostrow. Qualities that are seen as desirable or acceptable in a man are often criticized in a woman. “If women behave in ways that are inconsistent with their gender stereotypes, there is often a backlash,” she said. “If a woman is aggressive, she’s often seen as too aggressive,” Luce explained, “but a man is a great leader if he’s aggressive.” If a woman is very demanding, or not particularly nurturing or supportive, subordinates may complain she is difficult to get along with. If a woman is not overly social, she may be seen as rude. “Firm leadership criticized me for being difficult to get along with. They said I ‘built a wall around myself,’” said a senior associate about her time in the Miami office of a national firm. Although her work received excellent reviews and she had brought business to the firm, she explained, “I didn’t schmooze like my male peers and wasn’t flirtatious like my female peers.” Women are also disadvantaged by the commonly held stereotype that they are less committed to their careers than men. When a third-year associate returned to her New York City firm after the birth of her first child, she was given “tedious and boring small assignments,” unlike the high-profile work she received before maternity leave, she said. The assigning partner later told the new mother he had given her “low-key” assignments so she could spend more time with her baby. “I appreciated his intentions,” she said, “but, truthfully, I was more angry than grateful. If low-profile work was an option, it should have been my option and not his.” Although well-intentioned, the partner would probably not have presumed the same with a new father. Presumptions regarding commitment, like those regarding style or ability, are deeply embedded. To avoid the influence of bias on decision-making, supervisors must continually re-evaluate their judgments about junior attorneys’ competence and performance. Firms also should provide specific training in implicit stereotypes. Both individuals and firms should pay particular attention to evaluations, which often exaggerate the influence of bias. Supervisors are less likely to focus on hard facts and specific examples in evaluations, and more likely to rely on vague recollections and inaccurate samplings of junior attorneys’ behavior. Instead, evaluators should conduct a full and deliberate review of junior attorneys’ behavior and work-product. In addition, “employers need to get underneath soft criticisms and find out what is happening,” said Luce. A junior attorney may simply need a coach or an evaluating attorney may need training in implicit stereotypes or managerial skills. Firms need “to ensure that stereotypes and gender bias, which are natural, do not get in the way of making the right decisions about women’s performance and potential,” said Luce. By recognizing and proactively addressing hidden bias, attorneys and firms can help ensure that the Goldilocks problem becomes a thing of the past. Melissa McClenaghan Martin, a non-practicing attorney, writes about the retention and advancement of women in law and other professions. This piece originally appeared in the New York Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate.

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