The sisterhood of lawyers has never been more potent. In conference rooms and swanky restaurants, women across the ranks–senior partners and associates, general counsel, and staff attorneys–are brainstorming about what it takes for women to succeed in a profession that’s still predominantly male. Over sushi, cosmos, and the occasional mani/pedi treatment, they are bonding, united in the mission for gender equality. The message is clear: Women are united, and they want their sisters to succeed.

But scratch the surface a bit deeper, and some members of the sorority tell another story: that women–particularly their immediate superiors–can be their worst tormentors. Fact is, despite the veneer of harmony and the decades of shared struggle, there’s tension on the women’s front. Talk to any group of women lawyers, and there will be plenty of war stories on the betrayals–real or perceived–that they have experienced at the hands of other women.

These are more than just anecdotes. Last year, in an American Bar Association survey, a majority of female lawyers under 40 expressed a preference for male bosses (the 1,400 respondents gave men higher marks for constructive criticism and keeping confidences). Moreover, in a University of Toronto study of U.S. workers released last fall, women who reported to a female boss claimed greater depression, anxiety, headaches, and other ailments than those who worked for a man.

What makes this different from the usual tensions between boss and subordinates? In a word: expectation. Women expect other women to be more empathetic and nicer–or at least hope they’ll be. When their women bosses aren’t, some women feel betrayed. And that betrayal can feel especially sharp and personal coming from someone who shares XX chromosomes.

“As postfeminists, we are told that women are nurturers and that we are all in it together,” says California-based consultant Peggy Klaus, who conducts workshops for women in corporations and firms. “Women can accept hierarchy from men, they can tolerate their yelling and bad behavior.” But when women bosses cross the line, Klaus says, women take it very personally. Moreover, “when women have conflicts with other women, they take it home and nurse it,” says Lauren Rikleen, author of Ending the Gauntlet.

Generational differences can aggravate the tension. Former Winston & Strawn partner Jane Pigott, now a law firm consultant, says that the older generation of women lawyers (“queen bees” to the younger set) often made huge personal sacrifices to achieve professional success, and that some expect the next generation to pay the same dues. “After
I had my daughter, I didn’t want to stay at the office every night for dinner,” says an associate at a New York firm. “I don’t expect men to understand that,” she says, but adds that she was disappointed when she got a similar reaction from a woman partner.

But that sense of betrayed expectation also exists between women in the same generation–particularly where there are few women in top positions. “She will mentor a man before she will mentor me,” says one forty-something lawyer at a Fortune 500 company about her female boss. “She wants to be the only woman lawyer representing our group.” The irony, she adds, is that her boss is active with the company’s women’s initiative. Though this lawyer says she gets support from women peers and women on the business side, the sad truth is that “in the direct chain of command, there’s still competition [between women].”

All this has the potential for a retro, politically uncomfortable drama. Indeed, the focus on tensions among women strikes some as sexist. “It’s a very dismissive notion,” says Rikleen. “There’s no counterpart to the term ‘catfight’ when men compete against each other for client credit.”

But Rikleen, like others who study women in the legal profession, won’t deny that there’s something distinctly pointed about the acrimony between women bosses and employees. What’s needed, Rikleen says, is “to train women to depersonalize conflict.”

A good starting point would be to lower expectations. In fact, those cozy after-work gatherings might be promoting a false sense of intimacy that belies the inevitable tensions of a work relationship. What’s more, women need to get over the notion that women will play nice, says Wendy Tice Wallner, who says she learned that lesson when she took up golf for client development: “The competition was palpable in a way I didn’t find in playing against men.” The lesson, she says, is that women must learn to compete and support each other at the same time. “Necessity will bring them together,” predicts Wallner, adding that women need each other to catch up with men on business development. She pauses, then says, “That doesn’t mean they like each other.”

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Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan.