Rejecting the anti-role model
Dana Denis-Smith explains why women at the top must lead by example
Positive female role models at the top of the profession have a key part to play in the journey towards achieving equality for women in law.
A good role model will inspire women working within their organisation and beyond, demonstrating what it’s possible to achieve; and shaping the culture of the firm to remove barriers to women’s progress.
But it’s not uncommon to find that those women who have worked so hard to make it to partnership or board level are, in fact, ‘anti-role models’.
They appear so divorced from the reality experienced by junior colleagues that their presence has a negative impact on those trying to build their careers.
The anti-role model presents a picture of perfection to their colleagues. They show no vulnerability. Nothing ever appears to go wrong for them. If they have childcare issues no one hears about them.
If they have children, they are not discussed. Other women’s struggles with discrimination, harassment or balancing family and work are not recognised; they are swept under the carpet.
Given the working environment through which many women in the profession have come, it’s hardly a surprise that many who have made it to the top did so by presenting themselves as a perfect, efficient professional, untroubled by a personal life. For many, this felt like the only way to make it in a male dominated environment.
The problem with this approach is that people lead by example; and in a profession that still has a scarcity of female faces at the top, the women who do make it carry a responsibility. How they behave impacts on the culture of the organisation and whether other women feel they fit in or have a future career there.
A culture that discourages employees from being open about their struggles or admitting weakness, and fails to make allowances for the reality of women’s lives, will not get the best out of them.
If the working culture undermines you, makes you feel you’re not ambitious or that you must make huge sacrifices for your career, you will inevitably downgrade your own expectations of yourself.
If the message being sent from senior women is that sexism and discrimination are to be tolerated; that rocking the boat by making complaints is a bad idea; and assuaging family commitments for late nights and weekend working is a must – women will continue to leave the profession.
Many senior women feel it should be enough to have made it to the top of their profession. Their presence on the leadership matters, but they also have a responsibility. Part of being a leader is taking on the burden of being a role model – understanding that like it or not, you’re a role model to others.
This is about showing it’s okay to demonstrate vulnerability, to work collaboratively, to push back against poor treatment, and to make adjustments to working practices to help women to progress.
Of course, this won’t come naturally to everyone. Firms should actively encourage the kind of collaboration and avoid the individualistic ‘every man or woman for themselves’ culture that exacerbates the problem.
Women should not feel they have to be scrupulously fair, treating women and men exactly the same all the time – that is to deny the reality that many more women have caring responsibilities and that we still live in a world geared up to favouring white males.
To become a partner you should not need to be a model of perfection. Women who make it should think about how they appear to the women who look up to them, and ask themselves whether they are paving the way for the female partners of the future.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk