Women in Law: Why there’s no need to ‘outman’ the men to progress

How can young female lawyers make sure they fulfill their ambition and potential and progress up the career ladder?

The answer, unfortunately, is still not as simple as being great at your job. If professional success was purely merit-based, then there would already be many more women in senior positions in law firms.

Culture matters

To get ahead, any young female lawyer needs to identify the prevailing culture in their firm and make conscious choices about how they might need to adapt their natural style in order to move up.

To be clear from the outset, this is not purely about gender differences but down to understanding the difference between, and impact of, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ workplace styles on how you are perceived.

Avoiding gender stereotypes

In firms where a macho a culture prevails – of which there are still many – one approach is to work with the grain and adopt the style and behaviours modeled by men – those you compete with for promotion and those who make decisions about promotions.

The problem with this is unless you are a women with typically ‘masculine’ workplace values – bullish and confident – you won’t be focusing on your own strengths, something which is neither desirable or sustainable in the duration of a career. Research also shows that women who behave like men suffer from a ‘backlash effect’ where they are penalised for doing so.

Another option is for women to decide that a combination of talent and ‘feminine’ workplace values – being consultative, communicative and risk prudent – will be enough to make them stand out.

The drawback here is that many of the competencies by which firms assess potential partners could be seen as more typically ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’ for example the ability to rain-make or originate new clients for the firm – something which some women find does not come as naturally to them. Women often cite their ability to deepen and broaden client relationships and feel they don’t get enough credit for this vital aspect of business development.

What’s more the feminine strengths that women bring particularly on the management and communication side of things aren’t always those strengths which law firms prioritise most highly. In other words, relying on feminine strengths and talent is unlikely to be enough.

Adapt your style to fit the culture

Research from Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that rather than focusing on one specific style to the exclusion of all others, women have to be able to adopt both masculine and feminine behaviours. Women who can adapt in this way, picking the right behavior for the right context are more likely to get promoted.

In my experience of coaching women, this is certainly something which rings true.

Emma Spitz
Emma Spitz

One area where women could certainly learn from masculine workplace values is by abandoning any assumption that your actions and achievements will speak for themselves when it comes to being considered for progression. It is critical for women to spend more time considering how they can get across to others all they have achieved and have the potential to offer. This is something that men typically do better.

Women need to understand this is not about being overly competitive but merely stating honest facts about themselves and ensuring others know them as well as they know themselves.

Another area women need to consider is being more prepared to put themselves forward for tasks where they may not be 100 per cent confident. Men are typically more prepared to take on this risk and take advantage of challenges when they come their way.

In terms of feminine traits, it is important for women to understand that these strengths are increasingly in demand in the workplace. A recent Hudson report shows that co-operative leadership style, the ability to change style in order to influence different groups of people are strengths required by future leaders. None of these are unique to women but these are certainly areas where typically women do well and should feel confident about what they bring to organisations.

Women however, also need to be aware of how some feminine behaviours might be perceived by others: where they are consultative, they may appear indecisive or unable to decide on their own; where they focus on deep relationships, this may be perceived as not being as able to originate new ones (which equates to new business potential).

Different style for different situations

So if there is one thing that every woman should be clear about, it is that trying ‘outman the men’ is not the way to progress their careers. Instead they need to be more aware of their differences in behaviour, and be clearer about when they need to adopt a different style to achieve what they want and convince others that they have what it takes to succeed.

It also requires partners to value different leadership traits and not assume that all leaders have to be the same.

Emma Spitz is a career coach at the Executive Coaching Consultancy. She has over twelve years experience advising City law firms and coaching female lawyers on their career development.