Female Lawyers Skirt Likeability Paradox – Here’s How

Confident business womanBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

How does the likeability/competence double-bind affect female lawyers today? According to some new research, it doesn’t.

A new paper published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy has surprising new insight into the classic likeability vs. competence dichotomy reviled by professional women. We’ve discussed this issue on The Glass Hammer in the past, that women tend to face disproportionate penalties when they are perceived as being “pushy” or “aggressive,” while a man displaying the same behavior would simply be perceived as “assertive” or “confident.”

But according to the study, Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers, “in style and in effectiveness, there is no difference between how female and male lawyers are perceived.”

This flies in the face of many women’s experiences in the professional space – what are these women doing right?

Women Lawyers Not Subject to Double-Bind

The paper, written by Andrea Kupfer Schneider, Marquette University; Catherine H. Tinsley, Georgetown University; Sandra I. Cheldelin, George Mason University, and Emily T. Amanatullah, The University of Texas at Austin, revealed that female lawyers were perceived to be as affective at negotiating as their male counterparts. The study had lawyers describe their most recent negotiation counterpart using a defined set of adjectives – such as “personable,” “rational,” and “irritating.”

The researchers didn’t see a big difference when the results were matched up by gender. The article explains, “both men and women are similar in approach and effectiveness when working on behalf of clients. Even in examining the cross-gender ratings (men rating men versus women and vise versa), no statistical differences were shown.”

But that’s not all. The article explains:

“In a study of lawyers rating other lawyers in their most recent negotiation, female lawyers were described in terms that were similar to their male colleagues (ethical, confident, and personable) and both were equally likely to be judged as effective in general. In fact, women lawyers were rated more highly in assertiveness than their male counterparts, and yet did not seem to suffer negative consequences for violating feminine proscriptions.”

By and large, the women were considered just as effective, ethical, confident, and personable as well – and more assertive. And in this study, assertiveness didn’t reflect negatively on the women, as it has in other research.

Reasons Lawyers are Unique

Although women in other fields report a significant gender backlash (and the paper goes into several studies that show this to be true), negotiating lawyers seem to be unaffected. Why?

The researchers pose several reasons that these women may not suffer from the competence/likeabilty double-bind. First of all, studies have shown that women who have made it to top positions are less likely to suffer from this factor – since they’re in charge, they’re expected to be assertive

Second, these female lawyers were in the business of negotiating, when assertiveness is a key job attribute. By performing assertively, they were meeting expectations of their role, and, according to the researchers, this exempted them from the backlash phenomenon.

Finally, they write, they were working on behalf of others. Because they were working on behalf of other people, the “nurturing” stereotype of women may have been activated, and thus the women were considered to be conforming to gender assumptions, rather than acting in a stereotypical masculine way, and, therefore, were not subject to gender backlash.

How Can Professional Women Leverage This Study?

The researchers included several pieces of advice for professional women in the article, based on the study. The tactics represent a far cry from gender equality, but may prove useful in certain situations.

First, they posit that since these women were trained in negotiation in law school, they may be more successful at meeting expectations and beating gender stereotypes. They suggest taking negotiating courses, both to improve your negotiating skills and build confidence.

Next, because women are stereotypically assumed to be “nurturers,” the researchers suggest playing to this stereotype. They write:

“Using specific references to the team, client, or firm will help reinforce the communal frame of negotiation. This serves both the women and those on whose behalf they are negotiating. Indeed, the lawyers in our studies advocating for their client were successful; clearly this win would help their own career.”

Next, they say, think about the stereotype you’re fighting before you go into the negotiating context. They write, “Reminding oneself of the typical stereotypes – that women don’t ask for more, that women are perceived as more cooperative – should trigger the behavior necessary to overcome this.”

Finally, they suggest working to highlight the different roles you fill throughout your life. For example, they write:

“A woman could highlight her role as an employee of the firm, manager of the team, community member, devoted wife, loving mother, football fan, etc., creating a multi-faceted and complex identity of the individual, whereby she can no longer be evaluated simply as a woman against traditional gender norms.”

All in all, the suggestions leave something to be desired. Most of them fall squarely into the “fix the women” category, or require playing to stereotypes in a way that many women may find undesirable. While they may be useful tactics for individual women in specific situations, they simply don’t help to change stereotypes and improve the situation for professional women as a whole.

For this, they write:

“Finally, lawyers can look to their own organizations to continue to promote, mentor, and network women so that we can all move past the very limited narratives often unwillingly placed on women in the workplace.”