September 27, 2006

Sex, status and law-office culture

A reader from the midwest has responded to an earlier post ("Stereotypes and facts"), where I asked whether keeping up with colleagues' personal lives is something that comes more naturally to women than to men:

My father, husband, and I are all attorneys. My father and husband both work in offices with a fairly equal division between male and female attorneys, both at junior and senior levels, but in both offices all the secretaries are female. They both have discovered there's a certain advantage to the female attorneys who more easily discuss personal lives with the secretaries; the secretaries are more willing to save your ass if you remember their birthdays or talk about their kid starting kindergarten ... or if they know your spouse is sick and you want to get home. They also, of course, have a gatekeeping function and some ability to control who gets through to you on the phone, and who talks to new clients. I don't think any of this is malicious or manipulative; just that if Stacy Secretary knows that Annie Attorney is having a rough week because her husband has pneumonia, she'll be more likely to not put through the client from hell, whereas she might put through such a client to Arnold Attorney who is also having a bad week, but Stacy doesn't know about it.

I'm sure a great deal of this is cultural (I know that in real life, my husband is waaaaaaay better than me at this kind of social small talk and remembering people's birthdays and children and pets and things) and that women are often simply more comfortable chatting with other women.

But both my father and my husband make a concerted effort to engage in small talk with the secretarial staff at their respective offices, and some of the other male attorneys wonder why husband and father's secretaries are willing to stay late to help finish a filing, while their own secretaries are off at the dot of five. There's a definite career advantage to learning to navigate the "other side of the gender divide" in their offices.

On the other hand, my brother, also an attorney, practices in an office where at least 3/4 of the attorneys are male, and chatting with the female secretaries is seen as unprofessional and unimportant. In that office, the bigger advantage is to women attorneys who hold themselves aloof from the secretaries.

I'm in solo practice, so I don't have a secretary at present, but I also find that if when I drop by my husband's office, if I stop to chat with his secretary and mention that I heard her kid is playing soccer this year ... he gets a bump from that, too. And when I DID work in offices with secretarial staff, the attorneys who were social with the secretaries DEFINITELY got their documents done faster and the "intelligence" from the secretarial staff passed on to them. ("Bill Boss is having surgery next week, so he's really touchy. Just FYI.")

Might be an interesting study, to look at lawyers or doctors (where the gender numbers are equalizing) and their relationships with their staffs, which are still largely or exclusively female. (And potentially removing the science/humanities divide you might find in an engineering office; in a non-patent law office, most of the lawyers and secretaries typically majored in the liberal arts.) Also because in the highest levels of both professions, you'll still have male-heavy leadership (even male-exclusive leadership), so you could get some really interesting comparisons between male/female equalized offices and male-dominated offices.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 27, 2006 02:40 PM