Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work

Wells, Celia: “Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work” Feminist Legal Studies, Vol. 10, 2002,
pp. 1-38

In this article Wells analyses and examines women law professors’ (WLP’s) complex feelings about gender in the workplace. Her hypothesis is that these experiences may change as they become senior members of a university. To conduct her research Wells relied on a self-reporting and interview methodology, analysing 37 cases via 29 questionnaires and 11 interviews.

It’s a fact that women are underrepresented in universities in the UK, especially at senior level. This is especially true in schools of law, where there are very few WLP and female heads of department. Wells concludes that while WLP in the UK are a diverse group, they are also quite homogenous in some aspects. For example, just two of the WLP come from a working class family, and up to two thirds went to private high schools. An overwhelming majority attended single-sex schools and a large proportion (13) attended what is called the “Golden Triangle”: that is to say Oxford, Cambridge or London University.

Three quarters of them are white. Most of these WLP work in areas identified as soft law (public international law or criminal law), whereas commercial law, property law, trust and equity or maritime law still remain boys’ clubs. The main reason for going into teaching law seem to be related to accessibility and flexibility in comparison to legal practice. Other reasons WLP mentioned were: “it was not for me” and “too stuffy”. It seems that for these women, academic life is more attractive than legal practice because of the possibility of a more harmonious intermarriage of their professional and personal life.

Wells reveals the following figures:

“While most have either one or two children, two of the women have five or more. In addition, a fifth of the women reported that they had responsibility for looking after parents or elderly relatives. A few of them referred to the fact that child care was shared equally with their partners but most of them took for granted (it seemed) that they would be the primary carers.” (p. 9)

Funnily enough, as Wells remarks, the elite universities that educated these women were reluctant to give them a job. Wells also mentions the number of years it took to be promoted to senior level. This varied from 3 to 20 years. Indeed, the average number of years spent as a lecturer was around 13 , and to rise from senior lecture to reader took between 1 and 14years. These data suggest that women spend most of their law career in junior positions.

Surprisingly, nearly a fifth of the sample did not think that gender played any role in their career. It is interesting that WLP saw gender as relevant but not necessarily a disadvantage:

“As far as my [undergraduate] experience is concerned I do not remember feeling or being treated any way but equal. I was President of my Hall of Residence (women only) and was a member of the Students’ Union and ran for President of the Union.” (17) “I cannot honestly say that my gender has caused many real difficulties in my work, though it has critically influenced my research field. I am about to become head of school and therefore do not know whether gender will prove relevant here. My suspicion is that I have been in my present surroundings so long that nobody really notices my gender any more!” (p. 11)

Other WLP commented that claiming gender bias at work might lead to victimization, which is not good for women at all:

“My philosophy . . . is the one I have consciously or subconsciously followed all my life, namely to behave as if equality between the sexes prevailed, to ignore barriers that may or may not exist, to forge ahead regardless, never to espouse the ‘victim mentality’, to believe that anything is possible, and to be robust in the face of alleged sexual and religious harassment . . . Younger women seem to belong to a different species altogether, of a more sensitive and victimised nature; and as I get older, I find their attitude more and more inexplicable and self-defeating.” (p. 11)

In the same tone:

“I remain opposed to gender studies for reasons I find hard to articulate (marginalisation, softness?); and I also think that the sexual harassment movement has gone much too far . . . I am a follower of the small group of women who believe that sexual harassment codes do women no good, in that they represent them as sensitive, prudish, obsessed with protection, vengeful, humourless, and totally inept in dealing with men.” (p. 27)

Wells did a very interesting follow-up on some of those WLP who had explicitly mentioned that their gender had not affected their career. Some of these women revealed contradictions in their self-reports and further interviews. For example, one of them mentioned later that she had been the object of sexual harassment by a senior member of the staff when she was at junior level. When later Wells inquired about it, she stated:

“Yeah, that’s interesting, but it didn’t affect anything, it was just, I think, a case of an older male senior person who was, sort of, going around, he tended to, you know, be sort of affectionate, but he was trying to bring out things that you were upset about and then go “there, there” and I just quickly moved off and said that was the end of that but it was interesting later, several years later, that other young female colleagues had had the same kind of experience, but, we hadn’t talked to each other about it.” (p. 12)

Gender was also reflected in women’s appearance. Some WLP reported that in schools of law women seem to be judged by their appearance far more than men:

“If a woman looks too attractive, she is not taken seriously; if, on the other hand, she is not stylish at all, she will not be popular. The trick is to strike a happy medium between the two extremes.” (p. 13)

For many of these women, having a female mentor or more women supporting them would have made a difference. In some cases, that lack of mentoring has been translated into a sort of denial, something like “If I know I can’t get it, better if I don’t need it”. As one of the WLP said:

“I have always been a very hard-working, over-achiever so didn’t need much from others – which is good because if I had needed it I might have been in trouble!” (p. 14)

This tough attitude is very characteristic of male-dominated environments in which women need to show that they are not too soft or needy. This is especially relevant in the field of law because our profession is very confrontational; it’s often about producing the best and most convincing arguments, those that make you feel powerful but which do not necessarily reflect the real situation or the whole of people’s point of view or emotions. Our profession is one of economising on affection and truth (– or perhaps masking affections and truth?) for the sake of good arguments and power.

In this sort of environment that women need to fit into there are various possibilities, according to Wells. Drawing on Margaret Thorton’s research on women lawyers in Australia, Wells portrays four different attitudes toward women: “the adoring acolyte, the body beautiful, the dutiful daughter, and the Queen Bee” (p. 15).

As in another review that I have posted here , Wells refers to “divided loyalties” and the feeling that once women have children they are perceived as less committed to their work. Another aspect repeatedly mentioned in the self-reports and interviews is that women do more pastoral work than their male colleagues. I found it interesting (maybe because I haven’t seen this so far) to read how teaching allocation in law schools can be driven by gender. For example:

“I wanted to teach conveyancing but was told I couldn’t because I did not have a practising certificate. I was then asked to teach family law ). Once I was instructed to teach family law (which I had never studied) ‘because I had a family’” (p. 15)

Most of the WLP expressed discomfort and stress about having to juggle their jobs and their roles as carers for children or older people. They also raised further gender issues when the topic of promotion was brought up. Promotion blockage was mentioned by many of the women, as also the subtle discrimination that women lawyers face.

“I am increasingly concerned how far attitudes among some colleagues, in law and the wider university, really have changed. Overt discrimination has largely disappeared. No-one would say, as was said to me, “you’re no competition, you’ll get married and go parttime” or “you ought to stay at home with that baby – children who are deprived of their mothers fail to thrive”. Yet such overt attitudes have their benefits. You can hit back. Other colleagues hear what is said and rally round. Today expression of such attitudes is more insidious. Colleagues wonder if “X is pulling her weight”. Requests to adjust teaching hours to meet childcare commitments are not met sympathetically. Yet requests to fit in with other external commitments are.” (p. 22)

Wells believes that women success does not change the organisation and once the agreements are made endure for a long time. In this regard, she quotes this hilarious statement from one of the WLP:

“A topic for discussion at the senior awayday was the reform of the University’s mission statement to remove the concept of working towards equal opportunities because the University has got there! And they really believe it.” (p. 24)

However, Wells point out that what seems to make a difference is having more women at the managerial level, something that I’m not fully convinced of. I think that it’s very important, but it doesn’t mean that women at managerial level are not going to end up doing the same thing. Wells make this interesting remark:

“Flattering successful women into believing they are exceptional justifies their being kept as a minority. They are recruited as ‘honorary males’ and by invitation join the dominant group of king bees. At the same time they may carry the dutiful (and therefore not exactly brilliant) image to prevent full admission or further progress. Only limited paths are available for women at this stage. Ascending the hierarchy will often mean for women an inevitable, tacit acceptance of the organisational culture. Gaining access to power for women may often be at the cost of their sense of identity as women, or their solidarity with others.” (p. 28)

The whole point, to me, comes down to what sort of change WLP can bring to the teaching and researching of law, and whether this change can be made only from a managerial position or also from other angles. Maybe we need to see more women in managerial positions to appreciate the change, but perhaps there are other alternatives.


One response to “Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work

  1. Very interesting article. Thanks so much, Natalia.

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