Psychologist, lawyer and business consultant offer strategies for dealing with gender bias, barriers
Women practising law are very good at “competitive negotiation” for their clients but often don’t use those skills for themselves when attempting to improve their workplace status, participants were told at a recent Women’s Law Association of Ontario webinar.
Author, psychologist and lawyer Delee Fromm said during the Empowering Women: How to Quash the Pink Elephant virtual event that women enjoy negotiating for their clients and are often “better at it than men.”
“This is our ace in the hole,” she said. However, “we’re not as good negotiating for ourselves.”
She suggested that women in the law try to find “that same sense of empowerment they feel negotiating for others” when negotiating for themselves, whether for “a salary increase or a promotion” or other workplace benefits they feel they deserve.
Fromm said research shows that women tend not to negotiate as strongly when “they are afraid of hurting the relationship.
“We have no problem negotiating,” she said. However, workplace situations can sometimes feel “ambiguous and we think maybe we shouldn’t be negotiating on our own behalf.”
Fromm referred to her recent book Understanding Gender at Work: How to Use, Lose and Expose Blindspots for Career Success. In it she writes that traditional feminine “rules” of “always be nice and never fight back” do not serve women well in dealing with certain situations at work.
These include: giving in too easily in negotiation or when asking for what you want; backing off when faced with opposition or sharp criticism; ignoring challenges to authority and even sexist remarks; and avoiding giving a controversial opinion only to have someone else applauded for voicing it.
To deal with these situations, Fromm said the objective is to find tools that can put a quick end to repeated patterns of behaviour, or comments, from others.
The key is to “stand firm,” she said, and understand that for women being on the receiving end of such negative tactics, it is all about “power dynamics” and “gender culture.” Negotiating for yourself and what you want will ultimately compel others to see the value in you and your ideas.
The virtual panel, geared toward junior and mid-level associates facing gender bias and barriers in the workplace, offered strategies for dealing with situations that arise with female lawyers as they advance through their careers.
Among the panellists was Jayashree Goswami, Senior Counsel at Intact Financial Corporation in Toronto. She was called to the bar in 2007 and worked as a litigator at a national law firm for several years before moving to an in-house position as a member of one of Toronto’s largest in-house litigation departments.
Goswami, originally from Calcutta, talked about her own experiences as a young South Asian lawyer and focussed on the need to “interrupt a bias” when it happens.
She described one incident as a junior associate, in an elevator with a senior male partner, “in his fifties and at the pinnacle of his profession.” He started to talk to her about a case, of which she knew nothing. Goswami said “panic set in” as she scrambled to remember what case he was talking about, as other associate lawyers in the firm were smothering giggles as this was going on.
“The elevator reaches its destination, everybody walks out, and the associates . . . burst into peals of laughter,” Goswami said. And it is then she realized she had been mistaken for another female lawyer of South Asian descent at the firm.
Looking back, Goswami said she was embarrassed by the situation, even though it wasn’t her fault. “More importantly, I felt unremarkable, I felt forgettable, and I felt discounted.” However, since then, Goswami said this is the exact type of “blind spot” that women, regardless of their racial background, must learn to “interrupt” and deal with when it happens.
In the elevator, “I was tongue tied and I felt the weight of the world on me,” she said. But rather than feel that way, “the first step is to recognize what is happening so you’re able to deal with it.” And that means saying something to address the issue.
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Goswami said. Still, she noted how U.S. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris told outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, “I’m speaking Mr. Vice President, I am speaking,” when he interrupted her during a pre-election debate.
Goswami added: “I think it’s very important for us as women to learn to address the situation when we recognize something that is happening,” whether that is an incorrect attitude, incorrect conduct, flawed categorization or systemic bias.
“We have to learn to interrupt bias, because otherwise it just goes on and on. And the effect of bias is that you start second guessing yourself, you start doubting yourself and you start shutting down.”
Since her experience in the elevator, Goswami said she has learned the importance of being able to “think ahead of time” of something that can be said to interrupt a bias situation as it is happening. She described a situation two years ago when she was being “treated poorly” by a male lawyer who thought she was young and lacking in experience, who was “taking it upon himself to school me on what and how I should tell my client.
“And I remember turning around and saying, ‘I’m so sorry, Mr. So-and-So, it seems like you’re having a really rough day aren’t you.’ And that stopped him in is tracks, because I had called him out without saying to him that he was being obnoxious, or inappropriate.”
Humour can also work, Goswami said. She noted that the female South Asian lawyer for whom she had been mistaken had a ready joke for that situation: “I don’t mind being mistaken for Jayashree, but only when I screw up.”
The third panellist, Jane Southren, was a litigator for 16 years but is now a business development adviser and coach working with lawyers, accountants, and other professional services to enhance their practices.
During the virtual conference, she said that “blind spots” such as gender bias can be a hurdle to building a book of business. She added that it is often why it is harder for women than men to build a practice. “There are exceptions to every rule, but definitely this idea of gender blind spots is among them.” She added that often these are not intentional or nefarious blind spots, but biases and blind spots that have been “baked into us.”
She also noted that this happens because humans are “basically all wired for sameness.” Research has shown that what causes us to connect instantly with others is having something in common — whether it is gender or ethnicity, or something as simple as having gone to the same school, that sameness “will smooth a relationship.” The opposite can also be true, she said. When you are dealing with someone who does not share similar qualities with you, “you are going to be outside your comfort zone with that person.”
However, she added, the “great thing” about our brains is that even though we have been wired this way, we can be rewired to change those biases. It might require both a “top-down approach” — having a leadership at law firms do its part to change the workplace culture — and a “bottom-down approach” where individuals make it a point to speak out against these blind spots within their sphere of influence “for our own sake as well as for the sake of others.”
The key to this strategy is making “something that is invisible visible,” so once noticed, the unconscious bias can be overridden.
“You want to educate yourself about these blind spots, how they impact you, which ones do you have that impact others,” she said. “Do these tests, talk to other people, and the more you talk about these things, the more they consolidate in your brain, the better you’re equipped to address them.”
As for those female lawyers subjected to subconscious bias in their profession because of their gender, Southren said the same critical thinking tools they use in litigation and examination for discovery could be used in workplace circumstances when confronted by others who have these blind spots.