Updated: Jan 9, 2021
Much like Taylor Swift at MTV’s Video Music Awards, women in the legal profession often face interruption and other communicative obstacles in the workplace. Power and prestige are not absolute remedies — even United States Supreme Court Justices are not immune. A recent analysis revealed that, although female Justices adopt more traditionally masculine communication styles over time, male Justices interrupt others more than their female counterparts do. And, male Justices and advocates interrupt female Justices more often than their male counterparts.
Scholars debate about the extent of the difference between male and female attorneys’ communication styles, but one cannot deny that an attorney’s sex somewhat affects her communication with colleagues and clients. According to some comparisons, women’s conversational strategies focus on cooperation and being non-threatening, while men’s are concerned with competition and hierarchy. To control a conversation, masculine communicators may utilize strategic tools, such as interruptions, sudden topic shifts, and “mansplaining” — where a speaker unnecessarily explains either to a woman something that she is just as likely to know as the speaker, or to the listener what a woman is “trying to say.” Differences concerning race, socio-economic status, and other factors likely amplify these problems for some women.
So what can a woman do when facing these communicative obstacles? As one possible solution, female staffers in the Obama administration banded together, using an “amplification” strategy where they would repeat each other’s ideas expressed in meetings, crediting the original speaker and forcing their colleagues to acknowledge the idea’s source. On an episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast, Andie Kramer, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, suggests that, if a female attorney is in a meeting and is struggling to be heard, she might stand up (to get a glass of water, maybe) and then begin speaking; the idea is that it is more difficult to ignore or interrupt someone when they are standing and one is sitting. She also suggests interrupting your interrupter by expressing that you are not finished speaking yet; perhaps controversially, she implies that this technique might garner more success if used less confrontationally and more pleasantly. With regard to negotiations, Maureen McBride (of Lamb McErlane) has advised women attorneys to play to their strengths — like asking open-ended questions, understanding your opponent’s position via empathy, and listening actively — and to understand the differences between masculine and feminine negation styles. She also recommends, during a negotiation or mediation, establishing a powerful physical presence by sitting at or near the head of the table and spreading your materials out, rather than taking up a smaller, “polite” amount of space.
While no single, perfect solution is apparent, women can succeed by supporting each other and amplifying each other’s voices so that all of us may be heard.
Samantha Lillehof is an Associate at McGeady Becher focusing on special district law. Samantha is a graduate of the University of Colorado Law School and she clerked for the Honorable Terry Fox in the Colorado Court of Appeals. Prior to her legal career, Samantha taught literacy to third grade students in Montbello, CO.