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Women leaders in law

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them

Maya Angelou

I have been wanting to write something in celebration of International Women’s Day and many will notice that I’m a bit (a lot) late with this little piece.

The reason for my tardiness will likely resonate with a few people; I have been somewhat paralyzed by an analysis of the good, bad and the ugly, in mainstream media lately, about women’s rights. I had many ideas but nothing ever seemed quite “good enough” to publish.

In true “Michele” fashion, however, I am choosing to find the positive in this delay, and have relished in the opportunity to read and deeply consider much of the literature that has been published over the past few weeks. After much reflection and consideration, I have paved the path to writing this piece.

Leading women in law

Women in law, particularly in leadership, are a celebratory development in modern society and it is a fight that is still being fought today. One of the challenges facing women is spoken of far less often – when women in leadership don’t support each other or even go so far as to bully other women.

It almost feels wrong to type those words, but what is even more heartbreaking, are the stories of women in law who have been hurt by other female leaders. I have heard many stories of disappointment, sadness and outright betrayal flowing from the female ‘leaders’ they once admired during their quest to craft their legal career.

A common theme I found learned among many women in law is this 50/50 chance of finding a great female leader. One-half of their female bosses are wonderfully supportive, driven, intelligent, compassionate, empathetic, confident and understanding. And the other half? Much the opposite. They can seem aggressive, emotionless, intimidating, harsh, abusive and even vindictive.  Some glean that the bullies’ behaviour results from having to face significant gendered barriers blocking their road to success. Bitterness may have seeped into their feelings about other women in law experiencing what is perceived as an easier path. 

Longevity in law

It is no surprise then that many women face the often contemplated question at least once in their career,  “should I stay in the law?”. Thus begins the familiar internal battle of “but I’ve made it this far” and “but there’s a roadblock at every turn” and “it shouldn’t be this hard” when they have felt a lack of support or worse they have been bullied. 

“It’s OK to fall down, it’s what you do after that matters.”

The horrid irony is that those who have been bullied often suffer in silence. Without addressing the issue at hand, resentment can unwittingly fester into resistance and bitterness. The victim of the bullying may become the very person who wronged them, to begin with.

To those women who feel this or have felt this, I see you. I have had those same thoughts throughout my own various struggles in the land of law, but I have found great value in looking inward. Not looking at what I could have done better in any given situation but understanding how those things have affected me and permitting myself to feel those feelings. I have learned to validate those feelings and learn to ‘accept’ those things I cannot change.

Finding resilience and internal wellbeing

What I fundamentally believe, however, is that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. You may have scars or tenderness as the days/months/years go on, but the pain will begin to alleviate with time – bit-by-bit.

Think about watching a child ride their bike. They fall off, and you heave in thinking, oh gosh, how bad is the damage? You go to them, comfort them and talk to them about being brave. You make sure they try again because practice makes perfect, and it’s important to keep moving forward. It hurt. It’s OK to be sad, but now we’ve learned how NOT to ride the bike, or we’ve learned how to ride our bike BETTER.Advertisement

Now, when you fall off your metaphorical bike, do you give yourself the same patience and understanding? Do you tell yourself it’s ok to feel hurt, sad, disappointed? Do you reflect and say, ” I’ve learned something from this” or “okay, that happened, I need to keep moving forward armed with new experience and knowledge,”

We need to ensure we validate our own feelings and experiences. It’s about practising the art of acceptance. You cannot necessarily change what has happened or who hurt you. What you can change is how you deal with it and how you treat your colleagues around you.

By accepting an instance of belittling or bullying, you are not excusing it. You accept that it occurred, you validate your feelings on the matter, and then you need to permit yourself to move on.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent

Eleanor Roosevelt

When women hurt other women, it may have a special kind of sting to it. The sting inflicted may come from a dark place: a trauma from the offender’s own troubled path in the competitive world of law. It doesn’t excuse it, but it may explain it.

The question then becomes, what do you do with this empathetic understanding? You can take what you want from it.

Leading by example

You can walk the path of acceptance by learning and paving a path of your own. You can act as a true advocate for women by supporting your colleagues around you. How better to support women in the legal profession than to lead by example and advocate for equality and respect?

Of course, there is always the option to call it out for what it is when it is appropriate. This can be a complicated approach, especially if the bully is your supervisor. If they are your only supervisor, perhaps it’s time to move on if your requests/comments/protests have gone ignored. Perhaps you can go to another supervisor. I’m not going to say it’s easy; however, you can at least say you’ve tried to address the issue and moved forward. You never know what impact your words may have on others. Perhaps your words to another supervisor become the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it’s the last thing they needed to take formal action for bullying in the workplace.

Who knows! It is definitely not an easy path but what I gather is that you are likely to be much easier on yourself if you have attempted to address the issue head-on. It’s okay to feel cautious when you are addressing a sensitive issue – you’re healing! As long as you do not let the hesitation block the path to acceptance. This power is yours, and yours alone.

Celebrating strong women in law

There are some AMAZING women in this profession, and we should celebrate them. We should learn from those that wrong others, use those voices that have been quietened to raise ours louder, grittier and stronger. Women who inspire us, who truly advocate and support fellow women in law are the ones we need to empower. We must amplify their voices so that they echo through the generations of lady lawyers. Having come so far, we still have a ways to go, and we are progressing – little-by-little, piece-by-piece.

We have the power in our very own hands to shape a legal profession we are proud of. It’s up to us to keep inspiring, encouraging, empowering those who believe in the value of women in our legal workplaces. We need to enforce the belief that women belong in all areas of the profession, particularly in leadership roles. Women need to be given a chance to guide our profession in a way that combines all the great learnings of this honourable profession’s history – with all the creativity, innovation and hope for the future.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 Join me in changing the culture of women in Law and inviting them to the decision-making table within the legal profession. Join me in celebrating what women have and continue to bring to the profession.

*This piece was originally published in the Queensland Law Society’s Proctor Online on 13 May 2021.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash with grateful thanks.

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Leadership in law

Leadership is a lot of things and is not a lot of things.

People have different ideas of leadership and it can often be a negative experience with an employer/boss that teaches us what we feel leadership really is and what it’s not. If we desire leadership in our own futures, it may also inform us what kind of leaders we want to be. There are quotes aplenty when it comes to leadership. Here’s a few of my favourites:

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence” – Sheryl Sandberg

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” – John F Kennedy

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader” – John Quincy Adams

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“He [*She] who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander” – Aristotle

“No man [*or woman] will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself [*or herself] or get all the credit for doing it” – Andrew Carnegie

“We cannot ask others to do what we have not done ourselves” – Christiana Figueres

“Leadership is service to others” – Denise Morrison

[*some of my own adjustments added].

There are also some great books on leadership. Many with anecdotes and formulas of what makes a good leader. It would be remiss of me to talk of leadership without acknowledging the difference in leadership styles and approaches. The different attributes of different types of leaders are clearly evident then when, typically, you’re looking at male leaders and female leaders. To be very clear here, that is not to say that males or females are better or worse in leadership roles than the other. Lack of leadership skill does not discriminate between the genders. For years now, we have spoken of leadership attributes of females that are rarely, if ever, seen in male leaders. We speak of empathy, compassion, love, kindness, acceptance, sensitivity, self-awareness, inclusion, organised, creative, openness etc etc. These attributes are typically and historically assigned to women by nature. These attributes can also be typically and historically considered to be weak. Recently, as a result of the incredibly shocking and heartbreaking events in Christchurch, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated attributes of sincere leadership that have often been overlooked or undervalued; integrity, sincerity, empathy, compassion and love. Reading various articles about her leadership, I found that it was the first time that I had seen, in mainstream media on the world stage, a female leader being celebrated for attributes that have historically been viewed as weak or less than desirable in a leader. So many articles, like this onethis onethis one and this one. All of these articles are championing these attributes and silencing critics around the world for this woman’s approach to leadership. Finally, a woman has demonstrated that leadership is more than what it has historically been showcased. Finally, a woman in power has demonstrated that these attributes are moving, powerful and can help achieve great things. When it comes to law, there a few things about leadership (or lack thereof) that always stand out to me.

Leadership is not….

  • A title
  • Being bossy or demanding
  • Setting unrealistic expectations
  • Seeking answers without knowing the question
  • Bullying and/or belittling others
  • Demanding the destination without understanding the path
  • Undermining others
  • Valuing experience over potential
  • Taking credit for others work
  • Determining the value of each person based on the same thing
  • Simply telling people what to do
  • Always being right
  • Raising your voice
  • Not listening
  • Avoiding or forgetting leadership development
  • Thinking your better than anyone else
  • Talking at your people

Leadership is….

  • Leading by example
  • Teaching and mentoring
  • Knowing your people and understanding their strengths and weaknesses
  • Giving support, especially when the chips are down
  • Encouraging and empowering people
  • Having a plan and executing it
  • Encouraging collaboration
  • Setting clear expectations
  • Setting a standard by demonstrating that standard
  • Being the change
  • Having clear vision
  • Lifting your people up
  • Giving credit where it is due
  • Celebrating wins (big and small)
  • Sharing in reflection on the losses collectively
  • Having and demonstrating integrity
  • Communicating effectively
  • Giving meaningful and constructive feedback
  • Not being afraid to say “I don’t know”
  • Admitting mistakes
  • Talking with your people

You don’t need to have a title such as partner/director, special counsel, senior associate, associate etc etc to be a leader. You can dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Act like a leader, if that’s what you want to be. Demonstrate leadership skills in your job and they will shine through. Take opportunities where they present themselves, and seek them our when they don’t. The chatter around the world about leadership attributes is thought-provoking and driving change. Change and evolution can demonstrate how some of these attributes that leaders and aspiring leaders can (or do) embody can encourage those leaders and their teams to embrace the power of such a change now and in the future. This blog post seeks to speak to and support aspiring leaders and encourage them to seek leadership if they, too, see value in championing these attributes for their own teams or from within their current team or community; To challenge and, if appropriate, educate those who are currently in leadership and to aid self-awareness and reflection; To help people gain perspective of leadership from other walks of life (and those walks may be people just like those that are a part of their own team) to help them succeed in leadership; To drive change and forward thinking; To champion the lesser-welcome or lesser-known attributes of modern leadership in an ever-evolving society to show the world that they are powerful.

What do you think makes a leader? Do you have a favourite quote about leadership?

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash with grateful thanks.