TrendingWomen in Law

A previous article on The Attic exploring the portrayals of women in law on TV provoked some interesting discussion in the office about fiction vs. reality. So, we decided to dig a little deeper, and conducted a survey of practicing lawyers on how they felt about their fictional counterparts, and the influence they have on women in the legal sector.

Professional women across different sectors face certain challenges of greater magnitude than their male counterparts – from gender bias and pregnancy discrimination, to the gender pay gap. A seemingly superficial but no less significant challenge is the pressure that many women face to ‘dress to impress’ in the workplace. Our survey found 9 out of 10 female lawyers agree that they often feel pressure to prove their competency by dressing a certain way, and 8 out of 10 believe that some of this pressure comes from stereotypes of female lawyers perpetuated by on-screen portrayals in popular culture. Think modelesque Charlotte Richards or immaculately dressed Jessica Pearson, all undeniably glamorous women with not a hair out of place, always perched on top of stiletto heels that “no working woman could survive a day in,” as quoted by one surveyee. “Living up to such standards would be a tall order,” claimed another, emphasising that hours of primping, polishing and a limitless fashion budget to maintain such an appearance are hardly compatible with the day to day realities of being a lawyer.

Smart, Sexy, or Both?

On the flipside, perhaps these portrayals are aspirational and liberating: the strong presence of these women in a traditionally male-dominated sector is reflected in their powerful fashion choices. Yet this still continues to feed the idea that a lawyer’s competency is directly linked to his or her physical appearance. While to an extent all lawyers face this pressure; many female lawyers claim that their appearances are scrutinised more heavily than those of their male colleagues. “Dressing professionally seems to be a combination of smart and sexy, the pencil skirt and heels look is almost a uniform”, says one lawyer, “clothes and styling imply your professional capability and commitment to work”. The pressure to be simultaneously “smart and sexy” is somewhat paradoxical; while a certain degree of ‘sexiness’ is apparently expected, studies show that sexualised women are seen as less intelligent and less competent. This contradiction is brought under the spotlight in Legally Blonde, with Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods defying all stereotypical expectations of her intellect – notably without comprising on or altering her appearance, or personality, in the process.

Ageism and the ‘Ally McBeal Effect’

When Ally McBeal debuted in the late 90s, the series was praised for its forward-thinking take on female sexuality; Ally’s “mini [skirts] take centre stage”, and in It’s My Party, she is even held in contempt by the judge when she refuses to wear a longer skirt to court. This might be considered a bold move to prove that a lawyer’s competency holds no connection to her appearance; Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of Jane magazine, says “we can all look at Ally and see her as some kind of icon. Women find themselves emulating her, feeling ok wearing shorter skirts to the office because of her. She’s freeing women up.” However, around 35% of female lawyers are partners, and generally between the ages of 45 and 54. Do female partners really see Ally as “some kind of icon”? One lawyer in her 40s replied that “normal office dressing for women is biased towards how 20-somethings dress. Does a middle-aged lawyer have to try to look like a 25 year old? Are we allowed to go grey? Wear more comfortable shoes? Put on weight? I think if women did we would be seen as unprofessional.”

The Litigatrix

In his article, Farewell Ally McBeal, Enter the Litigatrix, David Lat seeks to revitalise the perception of female lawyers in Ally McBeal by profiling the ‘Litigatrix’, a “supremely confident” female lawyer whose job description is to “make men feel pain”. Think, Glen Close in Damages, who one lawyer describes as a “power-hungry, ball-breaking psychopath”. The term used in the title, a portmanteau of litigator and dominatrix, conjures the cartoonish and somewhat insulting image of a whip-cracking, cold, browbeating female.

The invention of a new term distinguishes successful female lawyers as a breed of their own, and suggests that accomplished women are a novelty in a man’s world. It suggests that women are “objects” rather than “active agents”, as art historian Linda Nochlin discusses in her essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. While a “man’s gender is proof of his accomplishment”, a woman “has to go further to prove her worth” and push past this objectification. The term ‘Litigatrix’ again ultimately implies a connection between a woman’s sex appeal and her competency as a lawyer. Lat’s effort to empower female lawyers “downplays their intelligence, hard work and success,” and “does what it intends, to sexualise a woman.”

Empowerment Through Appearance

But is it really so wrong to want to look good at work? Maintaining one’s personal appearance can “instill confidence, both inwardly and outwardly”, says one lawyer respondent. The Good Wife and spin off The Good Fight has received praise for its empowering use of makeup and clothes. The three leading women, Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart and Kalinda Sharma, as well as Lucca Quinn are examples of how ‘power dressing’ builds and demonstrates confidence (see also Jessica Pearson in Suits). The sharp suits, knee high leather boots and lip liner accentuate their competency and confidence in their ability. Their bold fashion statements are reflections of their bold personalities, and enhance their presence in a male-dominated environment.

Moreover, while the women are certainly made-up and well-presented at all times, they are all in their forties and fifties, and perhaps constitute more realistic representations of senior female lawyers.

Acknowledging Reality On Screen

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson documents Marcia Clark’s experience during the OJ Simpson trial in 1994, during which her physical appearance was heavily scrutinised by her colleagues and the media. Based on true events, American Crime Story’s portrayal of Marcia is therefore more accurate than previous portrayals of female lawyers, and the real life challenges Clark faced are on display. The series highlights the contradicting expectations that female lawyers must simultaneously ‘blend in’ and ‘stand out’. “At legal events, most female lawyers who want to be taken seriously wear dark coloured skirts and jackets. Trousers are accepted, but they are definitely not the norm,” one lawyer pointed out. Perhaps not surprising, since women lawyers were only permitted to wear trousers at work  since the 1990s! A degree of femininity is required, and in the series we see Marcia visiting a hairdresser for a “softer, more feminine” look, much like Clark did in real life. “I’m not a model, I’m not an actress, I’m a lawyer”, says Clark. Sarah Paulson, who played Marcia, commented on the role at the time: “it is the dirty little secret of the workplace that how a woman looks matters.”

Beyond The Gloss

From the responses we received, it’s clear that there is some uneasiness about portrayals of women in law in popular culture. Yes, fictional entertainment is typically more glossy and glamorous than the real life it portrays, and there needs to be room for the aspirational and escapism. But while women in male dominated spheres still have to fight against sexist perceptions to be taken seriously in their careers, these portrayals play an all the more influential and important role in changing minds and inspiring the lawyers of tomorrow. While inequality persists, there is perhaps no such thing as harmless fantasy – here’s hoping we see some more down-to-earth, unglamorous lawyer reality hitting our screens in future to provide a balance.

Women in Law

We spend a lot of time celebrating the progress being made in diversity and gender equality in the legal industry. However, every so often we come across a statistic or study that makes us stop and realise just how much more work needs to be done to invest in female talent and to get rid of gender bias.

One that stood out to us recently was the realisation that still only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs. Add to that the continuing pattern across industries that the higher up the ranks a woman gets, the pay gap widens, as seen in a study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Even women who have branched out on their own find they come up against more barriers to progress than their male counterparts. Female founders and business leaders are struggling to achieve investment – a truly shocking 91% of publicly announced growth company cash investment deals were companies without a single female founder.

Within law, the picture is just as disheartening. Though there are many measures being taken to improve opportunities for women, they don’t seem to be having the effect one would hope. A McKinsey study of North American law firms, Women in the Workplace 2017, found only 19% of equity partners are women, and women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than are men

All Talk, No Action on Gender Bias?

It appears for all the progress in conversations around the importance of enabling more women to succeed and thrive in her chosen career path, there is a huge gap between acknowledging problems and taking the steps to address them. Gender bias is still very much present in big business decisions.

Why are companies, law firms and investors still reluctant to put their money where their mouth is? Here are just some of the lingering problems preventing investment in female talent, and the measures that need be taken to resolve them.

Problem #1 Unconscious Gender Bias

Investors, employers and company boards are all too often surrounded by people that look and think the way they do – the all too familiar ‘Old Boys Club’. This is not necessarily down to overt, conscious sexism or aversion to diversity – more that people don’t see the problem with being surrounded by people who look like and have similar backgrounds to themselves. It is important to confront the gender bias that we hold and teach ways to overcome them.

Measures to take: Facebook recently revealed that they have created an anti bias training course for employees, to help them interrupt and correct bias where they see it in the workplace. The company has also shared information, videos and presentations on its website for public access, so this a good place to start for anyone thinking of implementing their own anti-bias training for themselves or their employees.

Problem #2 Caregivers and Flexible Working

Employers are still far more concerned about women taking time out to have children or to care for family members than they are about men. Though parental and caring responsibilities are becoming more equally shared, women remain primary caregivers in our society, and therefore either have to juggle endlessly or step back from their career path. Women with family commitments, or those simply seen as being of childbearing age/circumstance may still be overlooked for promotion or ‘demanding’ roles due to the reluctance to allocate for flexible working.

Measures to take: It’s time for more organisations to take flexible working seriously as a wider part of company culture, rather than a case by case solution to a problem. Employers and employees both play a role in making this happen. The Law Society of Ireland provides a clear and comprehensive guide to conversations and statistics around flexible working practices. The more commonplace flexible working becomes in our industry, the less barriers primary caregivers will face in career progression.

Problem #3 Lack of Incentivisation

Something that is often missing from the conversations around inequality is incentives for organisations to invest efforts to tackle the gender bias problem for the benefit of all. There is real pressing need for companies to invest in female talent to drive extraordinary returns and the economy forward.

Measures to take: Look at the proof of the business case for gender equality. This McKinsey study is a few years old but shows just how essential female talent is for competitiveness, with companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity diversity statistically less likely to achieve above average monetary returns compared to other similar companies. Obelisk Support is also living proof that tearing up the traditions and focusing on both men and women who want to work differently can lead to big things – global expansion, policy influence, award recognition, and being an important part of the drive for change in the legal industry. We have seen first hand the rewards that can be reaped from investing in female talent.

Problem #4 Lingering Belief in Inequality

Underlying all these issues is that a small but significant portion of society still believes that women are not equal to men in terms of ability and potential to lead and play the same roles in society. That is a far bigger problem to address, but facing up to this uncomfortable reality can help shape conversations we need to have to deconstruct societal imbalance and change thinking.

Measures to take: There is no single remedy to this overarching issue, just the continuation of discussion and of efforts to change what we can in our own pool in order to create a ripple effect. Despite slower progress than we might have expected in some areas, it is important not to lose hope and realise that small changes come together to change the culture at large. We are heading in the right direction to eradicate these ideas once and for all.