The myth of the workplace ‘sisterhood’ and why it may do more harm than good

For many women working in traditionally male-dominated industries, the ‘sisterhood’ represents an unbreakable bond between female colleagues, sharing in challenges and celebrating each other’s successes. But to effectively progress the representation and status of women in the legal profession, what value is there in alienating the men in the room?

There is little point in sidelining men while trying to improve the status of women, as both genders are responsible for, and capable of, addressing the core issues that hinder the progression of women.

An outdated mode

Once characterised by women-only seminars, workshops and programs, the equality agenda has shifted in recent times, with many questioning the effectiveness of a female-only driven approach. While there will always be a place for ‘girl power’, relying solely on women championing women has clear limitations, and these activities mirror much of the exclusionary behaviour that has hindered diversity in the first place.

The Honourable Justice Sarah Derrington, Federal Court judge and President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, recently spoke on the outdated mode of the ‘sisterhood’.

“It is really important that we (women) have some time on our own to share the issues that we may not want to discuss with male colleagues,” Justice Derrington said.

“But I think we’ve got to get rid of this myth of the sisterhood. There’s no reason why all men have to be best friends and there’s no reason why all women have to be best friends. Once you are in a role or position, in whichever type of environment it is, we’re all in it together.”

Leadership without the gender-lens

As with progressing any agenda, buy in from senior leaders is key – and this is where the ‘sisterhood’ model comes up short. While the proportion of male to female solicitors is roughly even,[1] only 28.5% of partners in Australian law firms are women.[2]

Justice Derrington noted the importance of leaders taking an active role in supporting the women in their organisations, and but also the benefit of extending this support to men.

“I like to treat the women who are in my sphere of influence as I would my daughters… if I have had any sort of responsibility for another woman – whether they were my students, employees or colleagues – I’d like to think that I have given them the same amount of attention that I would give to my daughters,” Justice Derrington said.

“Similarly though, I want young men to have the same opportunities and attention that I would give to my son, and I don’t want my son excluded from the opportunities that he would otherwise have had available to him, simply because we’ve now decided that somehow the men have had it much easier than the women.

“It’s important we remember that we can do a lot of damage to the mental health of our sons by some of these conversations.”

A recent study by the Australian Men’s Health Forum found that nearly half of all male respondents believed gender equality strategies in the workplace did not take them into account and that they felt excluded from measures to improve gender equality.[3] This can only disincentivize the men in our workplaces from taking an active approach in supporting both the men and women around them.

Celebrating women – a simple, but important mechanism

At our recent event Year 101: Women in law – the next 100 years, McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel was asked “What is one thing you would ask of men to help progress the status of women in the legal profession over the next 100 years?”. Ms Podagiel responded, “I’d ask men to celebrate loudly the wonderful females around them”.

“I know that the males in my organisation have a lot of respect for the females around them, so celebrate their successes. Don’t let these things go unsaid – tell women when they’re excelling at something, when they’re going above and beyond and when they’re performing well,” Ms Podagiel said.

While seemingly simple, the practice of celebrating women addresses a number of social and cultural factors working against the success of women in professional settings.

By virtue of cultural norms and inherited prejudices, women more so than men, are likely to encounter ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that you’re a fraud and came to success only by accident or chance. These deeply rooted insecurities plague even the most successful women, with Pulitzer Prize nominee Maya Angelou famously admitting, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”[4]

Another challenge presented by traditionally male-dominated industries is in direct contradiction to the ‘sisterhood’ mentality – the phenomenon of ‘scarcity threat’. Some organisations have observed that when women believe that leadership roles available to them within an organisation are scarce, competition ensues.[5] This may result in a subconscious preference for women to hinder the progression of other women – essentially sabotaging an organisation’s diversity efforts from the inside out. But as soon as the feeling of scarcity is removed, this subconscious motivation subsides.

By highlighting the talents and celebrating the achievements of women, we create supportive environments where we can all thrive. Celebrating the women around us can be as simple as using “yes and” statements to highlight credit when it’s due, for example “Yes Amanda’s brief hit the mark, and Sophie’s client management helped close the deal”, but can also extend to greater celebrations such as nominating individuals for team, firm and industry awards.

In short as noted by Justice Derrington, “we are all in it together” and we should celebrate the wonderful men and women who contribute to the constantly evolving legal industry as we strive for diversity of gender, and of thought.