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. Tony,

    Thanks for the book suggestion … I went to amazon and ordered it for someone who will appreciate the material.

    Right now I am busy reading the last link Victoria posted which is a more in depth analysis of the material than the ABA article provided. Also, I’m waiting for call backs from two friends of mine. One is a legal secretary in a large downtown Cleveland law firm and the other is a legal secretary in a small, 4 atty “family (father, brother, son, sister)” firm. I know that both firms have at least one female lawyer and I think the large firm has several. I’m going to ask them what they think about working for a female lawyer as opposed to a male. Both of these women are in their 60’s and have been legal secretaries for decades.

    Once I’ve completed those tasks I’ll feel better prepared to discuss the matter.

  2. Most would prefer working with a male as boss than a female or anyone else with an agenda to make partner. Not all women have the ability to maintain evil, unless they have an agenda, then again psychopaths exist everywhere.

  3. @Elaine: If they DID only survey those that had worked for both male and female partners, the score really would be 142 to 0.

    If they did not qualify, then the computation of 142 to 0 is flawed; but the other statistics still indicate a consistent bias against working for female partners and female associates.

  4. The managing partner is like the CEO in a large law firm. Of course, the legal secretaries work for other lawyers both male and female. My point was that it is usually a male who has the most power at the firm and the legal secretaries know this. I hate to see women pitted against women.

  5. Tony C.,

    “If 94% of managing partners are male, the 47% with “no opinion” may well be people that have only worked for males and thus do not know what they would prefer, they have no basis of comparison.”

    Why would the researcher survey legal secretaries who had never worked for a female manager or partner? Wouldn’t the survey be flawed in that case?

  6. @Elaine: I will clarify: Nobody in this survey preferred working for a female partner. That is not a chance occurrence, and the conclusions are not materially altered if it isn’t exactly 100% in the full population, the percentage that do not prefer female partners is way too high to not have a cause. Even at the associate level, where presumably there are plenty of females, those that had an opinion preferred male associates over female associates 5 to 1. That is also too high to be due to chance.

    @Swarthmore: It is certainly possible that there are not enough women partners to come to a conclusion; but even at 6% we should have seen some variation. If 94% of managing partners are male, the 47% with “no opinion” may well be people that have only worked for males and thus do not know what they would prefer, they have no basis of comparison.

    Still, 35% explicitly state they would rather work for male partners, and that is 50 of the 142 respondents. Presumably they have some basis for expressing that preference, and whether you want to see the shutout as 142 to zero or 50 to zero, it is too uniform a response to be an accident, and IMO so uniform a response it will have a simple, basic explanation.

  7. swathmore mom:

    My experience from my class in 1984 was that most of the female attorneys did not go into partnership tracks. Some had other responsibilities including raising families; others did not want the work load or had other valid reasons. Many opted for part-time work or went into alternate dispute resolution or public service work. There were considerable notable exceptions who have gone on to partnership positions. I just had a case with one of my classmates who is now a partner.

  8. Tony C.,

    “Chances are, for some reason, female law firm managers are violating most of these 12 points, and significantly more so than male law firm managers, and that is why nobody wants to work for them.”

    From the survey: “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.”

    Is it a fact that nobody wants to work for female managers in large law firms?

    I’d say you’re making quite a generalization based on the findings of one survey conducted with quite a small sample of legal secretaries. I’d add that we haven’t read the survey. We’ve just read an ABA article about the findings of the survey. We don’t know the number of law firms involved in the study–or where they were located. We don’t know the questions that were asked. I think issues involving people aren’t always so simple to assess.

  9. @Blouise: Let me add this: First, Break All The Rules. That is a book, I promise this will be relevant!

    This is one of the few scientifically based management books I have ever read, and one I have subscribed to heavily ever since, in several business dealings. The authors statistically sift through about a million employee interviews, conducted by Gallup over 30 years or so, to find the commonalities in what makes employees the most financially productive. In other words, from a business point of view, they want to know what makes a managed team profitable. For work that is just a cost, like janitorial work, “profitable” means productivity, i.e. costing much less than what is typically paid.

    The results are surprising, and simple. Out of the hundreds of questions that Gallup has asked, twelve stand out as explanatory of profits. If the employees answer these questions strongly positive, the department is extremely likely to be profitable, and as a side effect, the employees are extremely likely to be happy and loyal and turnover is likely to be low. And the opposite is true: Low ratings produce low profitability, unhappiness, and high turnover.

    So you can see them on the link, but here they are, in order of importance. Notice that compensation does not enter into it directly at all. For those interested, these are actually links with more exposition, at the link above. Look for them at the lower right page.

    Item 1: Knowing What’s Expected
    Item 2: Materials and Equipment
    Item 3: Doing What I Do Best
    Item 4: Recognition or Praise
    Item 5: My Supervisor Cares About Me
    Item 6: Someone Encourages My Development
    Item 7: My Opinions Seem to Count
    Item 8: My Company’s Mission or Purpose
    Item 9: Doing Quality Work
    Item 10: I Have a Best Friend at Work
    Item 11: Talk to Me About My Progress
    Item 12: Opportunities to Learn and Grow

    I would say the first two are obvious and simple: If employees aren’t sure of what they should do, or think they don’t have the proper tools, they are not going to be productive.

    However, items 3-12 are all emotional. Gallup does ask employees to rate their pay on a scale of 1 to 5, but it turns out neither high pay nor low pay are predictive of departmental profitability (when I say “department” that could be one store or something; this study considers front line managers, meaning people that manage primarily non-managerial employees).

    What makes great profitable front line managers are “people” people. What makes bad front line managers are those that are constantly changing what employees are supposed to do, fail to provide the means to do the job, or have no regard the emotional well-being or professional development of their employees.

    That doesn’t mean they have to be soft on them; in fact pushing them to work on what they do best, get better at it, produce a quality output and gain expertise are all helpful (3, 6, 9, 12). Recognizing progress and talking about it is helpful (4, 5, 7, 11).

    So why is this all relevant?

    There are undoubtedly other ways of looking at management, but these 12 dimensions are the closest thing we get to defining what a “good manager” is. Even if they are surprising, they are quite plausible from the human psychology standpoint; people are emotionally driven. In that sense, what makes a good manager really is simple.

    Gallup has spent millions of dollars to arrive at this simple answer, but that wasn’t wasted; that is what it takes to prove these questions are not just wishful thinking or soft-hearted sentimentalism.

    This is what really works in the real world: Define the job, provide the resources to DO the job, and care about the work and careers and talents of the people doing the work, we have to help them become emotionally invested in their product and their role.

    Chances are, for some reason, female law firm managers are violating most of these 12 points, and significantly more so than male law firm managers, and that is why nobody wants to work for them.

    Like I said, the answer will be simple, and I think it will probably be some kind of alienation of their employees.

  10. @Victoria: . Let’s not go for the easy answers.

    What’s the difference if the answers are easy or not? Let’s go for the right answers, easy or not. I have a great deal of experience with complex answers, and a greater deal of experience with easy answers. Most right answers are really not that complex, and in fact the more complex a proposed answer is, the more likely it is to be wrong, because it has more interacting parts that can go wrong.

    I get rather tired of people telling me answers are too complex to easily grasp without any accompanying evidence demonstrating the simple answers cannot be right.

    In this particular case, a 100% miss rate on a preference to work for a female boss is very strong evidence that the answer really is simple; whatever the underlying psychological reason may be, it has to be common to 142 people, and that means it is likely 99.513% of all legal secretaries feel the same. Statistically speaking, that has to cross race boundaries, sexual orientation boundaries, cultural boundaries and just about every boundary there is, perhaps even gender boundaries: It isn’t necessarily just female secretaries that don’t like working for female bosses.

    If the reasons for that were complex, there would be greater variation in the responses, because the complex set of reasons wouldn’t hold so coherently for everybody.

    What is coherent is that they are large law firms, and the disliked bosses are female. Given those requirements the answer will be simple, and it is entirely possible that in our culture for a woman to rise to a position of authority in a large law firm, she requires some personality traits that make her a difficult boss. Maybe those places are shark tanks.

    That is not a complex answer. The sexual harassment angle is not a complex answer. I think the results are too uniform for a complex answer. There is nothing wrong with a simple answer if it can be tested and explains the phenomena.

  11. I see, too. Hard to argue with wanting more information and wanting people to stand up for themselves at the risk of being called whiners. Luther was a whiner, so was Galileo. Brava,Bravo, Bravissimo, indeed.

  12. Victoria Pynchon,

    Brava! Your last post clarified your position quite well. Enjoy Hong Kong while I spend some time getting acquainted with your blog.

    The beat goes on..

  13. I see I’m not being clear; I’m in Hong Kong, still jet lagged and typing on my iPad which is not optimal. Just strike every sentence that has the word “enabling” in it. This is my “errata” reply.

    1. Let’s not go for the easy answers
    2. Let’s keep looking for and critically thinking about the complexities which, if we could read Batlan’s article without the damned academic paywall, you’d see is quite thorough and the context deep and wide
    3. We women have to STOP censoring ourselves about women’s issues. Period. We need to have the courage to withstand the ridicule and accusations that we’re “whining.” The women’s movement wasn’t whining. It literally liberated an entire generation of women who didn’t sit around bemoaning their lot but entered professional schools and endured ridicule and resistance for having done so. If we don’t act courageously when only our jobs are at stake, how do we expect ourselves to behave when our lives are on the line (or the lives of others)?
    4. When we share our experiences (as opposed to our opinions) we truly begin to communicate with one another, make empathy possible, lower resistance, tear down walls. When we opine, we divide, make others defensive, create more problems than we solve. We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable which includes getting outside our own experience and into one another’s.

    That’s as good as I can do.

    Off to network with women entrepreneurs in Hong Kong this afternoon. Very excited about it. There’s so much entrepreneurial energy here it feels like America used to. Let’s regain that spirit together.

Comments are closed.