Study: Legal secretaries don’t like working for female attorneys

Here’s a study that will fuel thorny discussions about female-to-female working relationships in the office: As reported by the ABA Journal (link to article by Debra Cassens Weiss, here), “(w)hen Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009, not one expressed a preference for working with a female partner.” Ninety-five percent of the online survey respondents self-identified as female.

Here are some of the comments left by survey respondents:

• “Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you. And they are passive aggressive where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal.”

• “I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform.”

• “Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary.”

• “I am a female legal secretary, but I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning.”

• “Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag.”

• Women lawyers have “an air about them.”


Professor Batlan interpreted the results for the ABA Journal:

Batlan wondered if legal secretaries’ attitudes toward women lawyers is influenced by societal expectations. “For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements,” she writes. “Gender structures tell men that they are entitled to women’s help and that women are supposed to freely give it.”

Other possible reasons: Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries want to work for those in power. Or women lawyers may be more abrupt because of tensions created by conflicts between work and family. Or female lawyers may perceive that the secretaries are willing to do more work for male than women bosses, creating frictions.

Can female-to-female workplace bullying research shed some light?

From my anecdotal observations, even today female attorneys are indeed put between a rock and a hard place. A profession grounded in very stereotypically male behavior expects lawyers to be sharp-edged advocates. However, women perceived as being “strong” are more likely to be judged harshly, while those perceived as being “nice” are more likely to be judged as “weak.”

The Batlan study also resonates with research being done on female-to-female workplace bullying. I’m copying into this post a portion of a previous piece that I wrote in April, “Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm.” I believe it’s very relevant to this topic:

An imperfect storm

So why does female-to-female bullying get such attention? And why does this aggressor-target combination appear to exact such a high price from those on the receiving end? Here is how I connect the dots, based on the observations above and my own surmise:


First, if women tend to bully more indirectly, they will be regarded more negatively. In our culture, we regard covert and indirect attacks as more devious than overt and direct attacks. In some ways, they are more frightening to us.

Think in military terms: “Sneak attacks” are always considered more treacherous and “cowardly,” sometimes associated with “unmanliness.” Direct attacks are considered more “honorable,” even when less effective.

Thus, when women bully in ways consistent with statistical indications, their actions will be judged more harshly than those who bully directly.


Second, if women perceive incivility more readily than do men, then they are more likely to recognize and struggle with indirect or covert behaviors that some men may never even notice. It means that women will suffer more due to bullying behaviors.

Double standard

Third, generally speaking, women are judged more harshly than men in the workplace. A male manager may be regarded as “tough,” while a female manager may be called a “b—h” for acting in the same manner.


Fourth, it’s quite possible that, especially in professional workplaces, female subordinates enter an organization half-expecting female supervisors to be more supportive and mentoring, rather than hostile and undermining. When they experience incivility at the hands of these individuals, their sense of betrayal is more palpable.


Finally, if female bullies are more adept at enlisting others to join in on the mistreatment, this may give rise to more mobbing-type behaviors.

Adding it up

These factors coalesce into an imperfect storm, whereby women who have been treated poorly or even abusively at work by other women are more likely to perceive the behaviors in very negative and hurtful ways. It may help to explain, for example, why female-dominated professions such as nursing have cultures of incivility — “nurses eat their young” is a well-known quip — grounded in characterizations of “catty” aggression.

This also means that women have to be more self-aware of their behaviors than do men, on average. It is unfair that women who mistreat others may be judged more severely than men who act in the same way, but that is an enduring reality.

6 responses

  1. A female colleague and I watched over the past 6 years while women savaged other women and the men sat back and laughed. The women that got savaged the most — both by other women and men — were managers; the higher up a woman went the worse it got. Most women will no longer take leadership positions in my old organization because of this double-edged sexism. Many will tell you they would rather have male subordinates even with barely concealed sexism that female subordinates who are treacherous and sneaky. Our theory is that some female subordinates are jealous of those women who have made it professionally and go out of their way to “get” them. So maybe this is just a case of the legal secretaries trying to get women who are successful. Too bad they didn’t think to ask the female lawyers for their stories–

    • Trish, thank you for your comment. Of all the workplace bullying/incivility/conflict topics, female to female interactions seem to push the hardest buttons and bring out the widest array of anecdotes.

      We definitely need to learn more about this, even though, as we must repeatedly point out, male supervisors are the most common demographic category of workplace aggressors. I do applaud those who dare venture into this territory, including Prof. Batlan, because anyone who does so is going to be criticized over whatever factors their study happened not to cover, even as they provide useful research that furthers our understanding.

      Alas — and talk about “savage” — some of the comments to the ABA Journal newsletter piece are what we’ve become used to in this slam-and-dash age of Internet “dialogue.”

  2. David, I believe you hit the nail on the head with this statement: “women perceived as being ‘strong’ are more likely to be judged harshly, while those perceived as being ‘nice’ are more likely to be judged as ‘weak.'” And certainly many women are perpetrators of sexism against their own gender as well. It’s sad.

  3. Really interesting post, as is the earlier Homespun Theory one. Throw one more thing in the mix in some situations–the workplace tension that may arise or exist between women with and without young children. I have read (more than seen) that this difference can lead to resentments between women. Complicated…..

  4. Obviously we all have different experiences – I was surprised at the experience of Trish — because I never thought of the female to female thing in that light. However, my experience is that of the several men and women managers/directors/VP’s I’ve worked for, the men were focused on the work to be done and the women were focused on wielding their power to the detriment of all of their subordinates — men and women.

  5. In my opinion, men tend to deal with conflict directly and once the initial rush is over, it tends to be less personal. Women tend to deal with conflict as mentioned, by recruiting allies, mobbing, and getting personal. Not that I haven’t seen men do this too, just less often. I personally belive men get over conflict more quickly, in that it’s a normal part of business. It seems more emotion-laden and as mentioned in Dr. Yamada’s post, fraught with the added burden of societal expectations of women.

    However, I would not sidestep the idea that women can be more malicious towards other women, natural women to women competitivenes…
    It is real and palpable. In my opinion of course…

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