I often read ABA Journal as a great source of legal stories. The journal however has been the center of controversy this month after reporting on the results of a study on the preference of secretaries vis-a-vis male and female partners. The study by Professor Felice Batlan interviewed 142 secretaries at larger law firms and produced a surprising result: not a single secretary preferred female partners. When the ABA Journal reported that surprising fact, professors accused it of fostering gender stereotypes, misrepresenting the results of the study, and displaying a sexist view of the work. Some demanded a retraction and apology from the ABA Journal.
The original story by the ABA Journal put the results of the survey in the second full graph as follows:
Asked whether they preferred to work for male or female partners or associates, 35 percent preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates, 3 percent preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47 percent had no opinion.
It also gave Williams and others extensive coverage in explaining the results. Many female secretaries are quoted in the study as explaining their preference for male partners — objecting to how they are treated by some female partners.
The Journal included a full presentation of the views of Williams and others that the survey reflected not a gender difference how partners related to staff but the sexist attitudes of the secretaries. I have read the articles and the underlying research conclusions and I fail to see the basis for the criticism of the ABA Journal. This is a journalistic enterprise and ran a headline isolating the most notable conclusion of the survey. It is very interesting to have a survey where not a single secretary would express a preference for a female partner. Reporter Debra Cassens Weiss then gave the view of feminist scholars that this was the result not of the difference of the partners in their approaches but the distorted view of the secretaries. That is an interesting story presented in a fair way. The Journal then gave a huge follow up story below repeating and expanding on the view of these scholars.
The survey sought to explore gender difference in the workforce between partners and secretaries. If the results came out that most preferred women partners, would the same scholars have argued that that view was due to the gender bias of the secretaries or would it have been explained in a different approach of female partners? Instead, some of the critics refuse to consider if there is a difference in approach among partners and instead insist that it is gender indoctrination of the se secretaries.
I have little expertise in such gender studies and I would expect some results to be shaped by sexist views given the overall problem of sexism in society. However, I do have some experience in legal journalism. In my view, to attack the ABA Journal and demand retraction of the story is unfounded. Debra Cassens Weiss ran with the most striking aspect of the story and then gave the response to that fact — and the other findings are included at the top of the story. The reaction to her piece undermines the credibility of the use and ultimate purpose of the survey.
What do you think?
Source: ABA Journal