On Being a Woman, a Lawyer, and a Leader
I was asked to write this blog some time ago but hesitated for reasons that were not entirely or immediately clear to me. Reflecting on it, I really think it was because I was afraid to be honest about what it took for me to become a leader in my firm, a firm that undeniably supported me to become part of its management team. The truth, however, is that my journey was not easy or natural and I faced hurdles both external and internal. Today, I am happy to report that, even with the scars, it was worth it. I am a leader who can advocate for and support others and help steer the trajectory of a law firm. I understand more than ever the importance of having women sit at the partnership table as equals and how necessary and valuable their leadership roles are not just for the firm, but for up-and-coming female lawyers as well.
What changed for me and what value does sharing my personal experience bring? Recently I listened to a Ted Talk, “The Likeability Dilemma” with Robin Hauser, who addressed the importance of speaking up to drive change. Ms. Hauser’s message reinforced my notion that the problem was not and is not me and I should not be afraid to share my story. It is through open discussion about biases, unconscious or otherwise, that we might just see some change in behavior and acceptance of women as competent likeable leaders. It takes real and honest effort within ourselves to unlearn years of external messaging that would cause us to dislike, in a female leader, attributes we would not only not dislike, but admire, in a male leader. This perspective aligns well with my own, as I have often said that only continued, honest and at times uncomfortable conversation about equality will help drive change. And so, with Ms. Hauser’s reminder, I decided to step in and share some of the struggles I experienced early in my career along with my views on women in leadership, in the hope that it will encourage and inspire women on their own journeys.
Without dwelling on the negative as I retrace the steps of my career I can recall from early on being caught in this likeability dilemma. I recall in my articling year being told by my principal, a well-regarded male lawyer, that I should be more like the men who articled with me. He never explained to me what that meant but I never forgot it. I recall being told, by this same principal, that I was too “aggressive” just in an overall sense. This in comparison to my male colleagues who were praised for the same “assertive” behavior. I know I’m not the only woman triggered by the word “aggressive”. I feel it is almost always used in conjunction with women who are simply asserting themselves in the same manner a man might – so why the double standard? There is no rational reason for it. It is simply the result of an unconscious bias, caused by a patriarchal society’s construct as to what is and is not an acceptable and admirable female trait. It is not easy to either recognize or unlearn it. It takes hard, honest work, and the willingness to do it.
Remarkably, as you will read below, this same bias exists for both women and men. These two examples from my articling year are not unique, there are many more similar experiences that shaped me and I know each of you reading this blog have your own experiences that have shaped you in your practice. Examples like these happen daily and it’s easy for women to internalize them as if they are at fault. It took time, but I persevered because I began to realize these failures were not my failures but a reflection of a learned bias that both men and women can and do hold in a patriarchal society. Of course, there have been many men over the course of my career who did not share this bias, saw my potential and helped me advance in all the ways they could. Today my greatest supporter and confidant is a senior male lawyer. While I did not waiver from my career path, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t always win my battles or even speak up and I had to make compromises. But I got here and looking back, I know every step was fought not just for me, but for all women – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel no bitterness or a sense that others should forge the same path. Instead, looking back, I feel joyful that I might have made it easier for other female lawyers coming up in the profession (though much work remains to be done).
So why aren’t there more women in leadership positions? What is driving the divide? As Ms. Hauser points out, a competent leader is seen as assertive and decisive which are qualities historically attributed to men. Women, on the other hand, have been normalized as being kind, nurturing and supportive. Women who depart from these preconceived norms are generally seen in a negative light. In fact, Ms. Hauser explains, women leaders are rarely seen as competent and likeable. If they have masculine traits they are judged more harshly by their peers. A case study out of Columbia School of Business proves this point; a professor put a case study to his students. It was related to Heidi Roizen, a successful venture capitalist. The study required the students to choose a candidate to work with. The details provided were entirely related to Heidi, but in an effort to address biases the professor used the name Howard on the application provided to half the class. The result was sadly not surprising. Heidi was found to be competent but not likeable whereas Howard, with the same qualifications and qualities, was both competent and likeable. The class wanted him as a colleague but not Heidi.
Why aren’t successful, competent women perceived as likeable? It is the subtle sexism or unconscious bias that drives the ongoing disparity. If women have “leadership qualities” they are judged more harshly than their male counterparts which in turn causes many women to shy away from leadership positions.
So how do we change the path we are presently on? We need to, as Ms. Hauser says, disrupt the stereotypes and redefine what it means to be a leader. We also need to do away with any and all societal constructs that define what admirable and acceptable female traits are. We are told that women can be anything, do anything. And while that may be technically true under our laws, if the societal constructs of acceptable female behavior are not removed from the occasion, can we really be anything, do anything? Or is the effort involved so great, that many will give up? Is that why we have so few female leaders?
In my view, the focus should be on exploring and defining the true qualities of an effective leader – it is okay to be kind and helpful, decisive and assertive. You can be smart and compassionate and make tough decisions that some may not like. All of these traits can, and should, live in an effective leader and none should be admired or critiqued, more or less, in a male versus female leader.
We also need to persevere despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming effort. As a woman in a leadership position, I would advocate that you not shy away from your pursuit of a position at the table. Continue to educate and ensure your voice is heard. Have tough conversations about unconscious biases. Directly address comments that are demeaning or meant to separate you based on your gender, don’t let them slide. I have these conversations regularly because they are necessary to strengthen our position as women at the table. The truth is that our perspective is necessary to run a healthy organization which seeks to better society as a whole.
What better person for the job than you?
About the Author
Kim Jakeman, QC is a partner at Harper Grey and – in case this is your first time here – also the co-founder of Life in Law. Not only is Kim a skilled mediator, she also maintains a busy dual practice focused mainly on litigation in the area of medical malpractice, and regulatory work involving professionals facing disciplinary proceedings before a variety of regulatory bodies. Kim is almost as passionate about biking, her new love of surfing, and working out as she is about supporting women in the legal profession. A master of her own balancing act, when Kim isn’t busy with work, she spends coveted time with her family and friends.