ABA Journal Under Fire For Coverage Of Survey Of Legal Secretaries

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

101 thoughts on “ABA Journal Under Fire For Coverage Of Survey Of Legal Secretaries”

  1. Aha … I was typing again and so missed the post.

    Victoria,

    Thanks, and yes, I agree with you.

  2. mespo,

    I put some thought into her second post “including the women lawyers’ point of view that an incredibly complex set of dynamics, not “women bosses are bitches” explains the preferences expressed to Professor Batlan in her small survey of women secretaries and their women bosses.” as indicating she wanted a study that looks deeper into the situation and covers wider ground.

    However, she should be the one explaining her reasoning so I will wait alongside you for her reply.

  3. Wht I mean by “enabling” is giving power to the idea that if we stifle open conversation about women’s issues in the workplace, we do ourselves and everyone else a disservice. I don’t know how to be more clear. I do not support censorship nor was I aligned with those who were asking the ABA to stifle itself. That said, I understood and empathized with the reaction, i.e., that the Juornal’s coverage emphasized the “women are difficult” angle. Women lawyers responded. I wrote at least four posts on the issue at Forbes. MORE coverage, more points of view, more controversy. As my friend Gloria Feldt says, “carpe the chaos!” – embrace the controversy.

  4. Blouise:

    I’m not quite sure what she is criticizing. Her initial comments seemed to take aim at the periodical for publishing results which reinforced conclusions with which she disagreed .I read her most recent comments to condemn enabling of work place retaliation by virtue of certain women staffers stating their preference to work for attorneys other than female partners. i simply wonder how she arrives at the basis for either criticism in the face of her voiced support for the free exchange of ideas. I honestly invite her reply so I can understand.

  5. mespo,

    I was typing and did not see your post till after I hit enter. I would not agree with Victoria, if indeed that was her meaning, that the ABA article should be modified or removed, etc.

    But her point concerning enabling is a subtle one.

    This battle is no longer marching in the streets and being thrown in jail and force fed till one vomits, nor is it the infamous white gloves followed by the equally frustrating glass ceiling. It has moved beyond all that overt behavior to the just as difficult, albeit in another manner, realm of subtlety.

  6. You know ladies (and Tony who often writes about his daughter in whom he takes great pride), this battle began back in the 1800’s and every time we clear a hurdle, two or three more appear on the horizon. It was so for our grandmothers, our mothers, ourselves, our daughters, and will be so for our granddaughters.

    A hurdle can never be cleared if one refuses to acknowledge its existence. Thus Victoria is quite right when she says “I am a huge believer in the marketplace of ideas but we women have to stop enabling the idea that if we talk about issues that are female-specific, we will be punished in the workplace for doing so.”

    Courage

  7. Victoria:

    “I am a huge believer in the marketplace of ideas but we women have to stop enabling the idea that if we talk about issues that are female-specific, we will be punished in the workplace for doing so.”

    **********************

    I’m not sure it follows that publishing this article “enables” the idea of punishment in the work force by merely talking about female-specific issues such as empirically demonstrable attitudes between staff and certain categories of supervisors. On the contrary, history tells us that these open exchanges reduce that chance of punishment. Did openly gay members of the armed forces talking in the press about repeal of “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ enable its existence, or did their courageous stand produce its elimination? They accomplished this even in the face of publicly provided “evidence” from the military that it would negatively affect force readiness and amid cries from that same brass that complexities that were not being considered by those activists.

    You seem to agree with me that a free exchange of ideas on the topic is a societal good, thus leading directly to a public debate which paves the way for either acceptance or change. How then can you criticize publication of ideas on the other side of the issue that gets the dialog going? Seems to me that conversation is always preferable to suffering in the dark without a peep, and you have to start somewhere with an assertion you don’t like being forcefully rebutted with one that you do. I think that’s exactly what you have done here, and explains the reason we’re reading your posts.

    I’m not trying to be a contrarian here, but I agree with Brandeis that “sunlight is … the best of disinfectants,” even if it does serve only to point up the shadows.

  8. “…you know I’d love to see the results of a statistical study showing the gradations of staff/MD interaction with markers for geographical region, profit vs non-profit sector, and for good measure you could show staff/pt. workload variables….” Woosty still a Cat

    Woosty,

    Yes. Excellent suggestions… and I’d also want to see the specialties of the providers…

  9. Agree with Blouise and LK. Have a daughter that will be entering the legal profession in 2013.

  10. Thanks for your insight Victoria.

    “We women in the legal profession have been self-censoring about these issues for 30 years and continue to self-censor today because we don’t want to draw attention to our still uncomfortable perch in workplaces that were designed for an era that is over…”

    That’s a historic problem in every profession women have moved into and a variant of that is no doubt in play for every minority group. It unfortunately hands the opposer about half the battle.

  11. I wonder what nurses would respond if the same type of study were done regarding working for doctors? -Lottakatz

    ——————–
    I agree with you anon nurse1, but you know I’d love to see the results of a statistical study showing the gradations of staff/MD interaction with markers for geographical region, profit vs non-profit sector, and for good measure you could show staff/pt. workload variables….

  12. In response to the question whether I would suppress a report of trouble between women attorneys and their secretaries, the answer is obviously “no” since I started this firestorm by writing about a 2009 study at Forbes in 2011 because I heard Professor Batlan address the issue at the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association Conference in October.

    The ABA Journal picked up the issue from my post, which was not the subject of any demands for suppression because it did not take the easy and “hit” generating course of highlighting the easy answer which is “women are hard to work for,” a proposition that I personally reject.

    Lawyers are hard to work for, as earlier studies of pre-feminist, i.e., all male lawyer firms’ staff relations.

    I was and am very happy that these issues are finally being aired and I’d personally like to see more coverage, not less, including the women lawyers’ point of view that an incredibly complex set of dynamics, not “women bosses are bitches” explains the preferences expressed to Professor Batlan in her small survey of women secretaries and their women bosses.

    We women in the legal profession have been self-censoring about these issues for 30 years and continue to self-censor today because we don’t want to draw attention to our still uncomfortable perch in workplaces that were designed for an era that is over, i.e., one in which men had non-working wives and could therefore devote all of their time and energy to the practice of law while their wives took care of the homefront.

    If we keep the issue of women in the workplace at the level we continue to talk about it – blame and shame – we’ll never solve it for both men and women.

    I am a huge believer in the marketplace of ideas but we women have to stop enabling the idea that if we talk about issues that are female-specific, we will be punished in the workplace for doing so.

  13. I wonder what nurses would respond if the same type of study were done regarding working for doctors? -Lottakatz

    My guess is that the results might be similar. I’ve worked with wonderful doctors of both sexes, so I wouldn’t have a preference based on gender. Any preference would be MD-specific.

  14. It’s an interesting study and controversy. I read the links and many of the conclusions stated regarding the potential reasons for the results should have been obvious from the make-up of the sample polled and many of their comments. I wonder what nurses would respond if the same type of study were done regarding working for doctors?

    The ABA has no reason to retract or apologize. They published a study by a respected journalist/researcher. In fact, the issue obviously needs more study and sunlight if you read the comments to the study in the Journal. Ha!, no sexism in those comments, no way 🙂

  15. Tony C.,

    “If your point is that the sexually exploited women are far more psychologically damaged than the falsely-extorted men, I agree with that point.”

    That wasn’t the point that I was trying to make. Just because there are some women who may try to extort money from men under a false pretext that they were sexually harassed, that doesn’t prove that most women would. It also doesn’t prove that many women aren’t actually sexually harassed in the workplace. I think that there are bad apples of both sexes. I happen to believe that they are the exception rather than the rule.

  16. @Elaine: ust as there are male bosses/superiors in the workplace who sexually harass women–most likely women who they think wouldn’t bring charges against them for fear of losing their jobs/women who can’t afford to go a week without a paycheck.

    Well, we are certainly agreed on that, there is no shortage of them. And predators are often skilled at testing and judging the limits of their command power over subordinates before they move on to explicit sexual harassment, which tends to minimize the number of assholes caught.

    If your point is that the sexually exploited women are far more psychologically damaged than the falsely-extorted men, I agree with that point.

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