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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