I have little doubt that the practical experience of many professional women is inextricably intertwined with gender specific beliefs and in particular with the double bind of likeability versus capability. It seems to me that women often face the choice of being seen as appealing or as competent, but not both. For many women the likeability factor is very important. There are no university classes on likeability and of course there are a lot of successful people who are not liked but being liked makes your success easier and certain characteristics of being likeable are readily embraced by women due to their feminine characteristics of caring, helpfulness and communality. To be liked you must be easy to relate to, be compassionate, listen carefully to others and give freely of your time and knowledge. Yet being likeable in this way does not in any sense preclude a capacity for competence so the dichotomy for women must be more deeply rooted in intrinsic gender expectations of them.
Certainly when women violate presumptions about the female sex they can expect to incur negative social consequences. For example, if a woman is seen as being pushy or aggressive she may be viewed in a way which is disadvantageous whereas a man displaying the same behaviour would probably be thought of as assertive or confident. Further values and behaviours expected of effective managers reflect masculine traits such as independence, self- reliance, assertiveness and power, characteristics not thought to be overly attractive in women. Look at the age old example of two women being told they have a sick child at home. The woman who leaves work to go home to attend to the sick child would probably be viewed as likeable but incompetent or perhaps unreliable whereas the woman who decided not to go home to look after the sick child but to stay at work is likely to be seen as competent and reliable but unlikeable. The decision of a male colleague in the same situation has no effect on his perceived competence or likeability.
So what can female solicitors do to change the legal landscape now that many more than 50% of students graduating with a law degree are female? Looking around me I feel quite optimistic that as solicitors we are better placed than many other female professionals to make a difference. I genuinely think that in style and effectiveness there is no difference between how female and male solicitors are viewed by each other and by most clients. This is in part due to the unique features of legal work which reduce the observed incongruity between assertiveness and prescribed female behaviour. Firstly I believe that a level of assertiveness is expected in all solicitors to negotiate deals and contracts so that this assertiveness is attributed to position rather than gender. Secondly lawyers work in a tight knit community and have to do business with each other repeatedly. Thus lawyers of both genders understand the importance of cooperating and the need to be recognised by others as being someone with whom fruitful negotiations may be had. Thirdly because negotiations are being made on behalf of another, female solicitors revealing male characteristics in the course of their work are not subjected in the same way to gender backlash. Advocating for others is in keeping with the female characteristic of nurturing.
In conclusion we have it in our control to help young female solicitors to make their way in the legal profession on a continuing level playing field. Certainly success and likeability are not an impossible marriage.