Self-Segregation and Why It’s a Bad Thing

The Angry Redheaded LawyerPlease give a warm welcome to The Angry Redheaded Lawyer!

Her post in our Confidence Game series raises a very interesting and important question: Is it a good idea for women in the law to self-segregate?

Sure it might be nice to get together and chat about kids and shoes with other women attorneys, but is it a dangerous idea?

I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this one (how’s that for a lawyerly approach?). What do you think?

Without further ado, The Angry Redheaded Lawyer:

I recently got some paperwork asking me to join a women’s bar association. Putting aside my general feelings about bar associations, I considered this and then, as I was cleaning things out yesterday, decided to pass.

To get an idea of my general views on such efforts, read this earlier post on “diversity” efforts in law firms.

Social Groups vs. Professional Groups

I’m not a big fan of doing such professional groups. Being in a sorority or some social group for childfree people is one thing:

Sororities don’t make it a practice to tell members to never talk to men or exclude them from their lives.

Mine has never said “You can’t have a male mentor!” or “You can’t get any useful advice from men.” The type of social group for childfree people that I would associate with would never say “All parents are bad!” or “Hate your child relatives.” Sororities do plan events with fraternities & some are little sisters in frats (I wasn’t). My point is a proper sorority is supposed to bolster the women involved and help them socialize with men.

These groups don’t operate under the idea of self-segregation. They aren’t telling you to shun anyone who doesn’t fit their category. If they are, I leave.

I Don’t See Myself as “Different”

I’ve read tons of stories recently on how there are few women filmmakers, executives, and how women don’t get advancement as attorneys. However, I don’t run around with a mindset of “I’m different” and I think it’s a terrible idea to do that.

Saying “I’m different” tends to lead to thinking you’re inferior or second class compared to men. If you want to be a woman who succeeds, you can’t be thinking that way.

This is my first major problem with self-segregating professional groups. I have never viewed myself as “different” or less entitled to things than someone else. I don’t really notice being a woman doing what I’m doing, or being a redhead, or even being attractive or younger than many people.

I just see it as me, the person who doesn’t take shit & is happy to piss off whiny idiots doing what I want to do. I’ve also found quite a few men who forge ahead & don’t put themselves into special categories. I don’t go out & ask for respect; I simply command it. I’m not called “the enforcer” for being a little wimp, you know?

I Don’t Want to Limit My Sources of Professional Support

My second problem is the idea that ONLY people just like me can give me career advice or mentor me. That’s total crap.

For one thing, if I just look for the natural redheads, then the women doing stuff, I probably wouldn’t have any mentors.

Plus, how do you know that older women are even going to help or support you? Some women are very catty & behave like they never left 7th grade. I’m not of them but I’ve encountered women ahead of me in the game who said they had no mentors & had to deal with catty bitch types who felt that young women should have to suck it up just like they did. I don’t know this for sure but it seems men are less prone to this kind of behavior when it comes to professional women.

If it’s between a woman or a man for a mentor, I’d like to see what each person’s career path is, their mindsets, backgrounds, etc. I’d rather pick the person who gets it & understands what I’m seeking over someone inflicting their own agenda on me or who hasn’t a clue what I’m doing or what it’s like to be in my shoes. Someone who will be supportive vs. a catty bitchy jerk. I can find cattiness easily enough; I’m not going to roll out a red carpet for it.

I Don’t Feel Inferior

Third, having a separate, segregated group is like saying “I’m inferior so I need help to get ahead. I can’t do it alone.” I don’t feel that way about myself.

I don’t need special programs to get ahead & I don’t want to get something because of my sex, or my hair color, or anything else I can’t control. There are many “minorities” who feel the same way. We just want an even playing field & a better environment for everyone, not just our particular group.

Now I do like the camaraderie, support style aspect of such groups. I’m sure people like that & find it useful. Certainly my sorority has that aspect to it.

I Don’t Want to Deal with Enforced GroupThink

However, if it’s not a social group you never know whether it’s just a support-style group where you can have any viewpoints you want & simply talk to people (other women, redheads, whatever) or if you have to start taking on views you don’t agree with for the sake of “group conformity.”

For example, I don’t think you have to stomp on men or anyone else to get ahead. Some women’s groups feel differently. Some women want to discriminate against skinny women & aren’t very nice to them. You don’t see men cutting down more attractive men or shunning THEM. Women, on the other hand, do it all the time. Now I’m not speaking individually, I’m speaking of women as a group so don’t take personal offense. If you’re a woman, you know there are some catty & unpleasant ones among us.

I Value Diverse Perspectives

I also think you lose valuable perspectives and insight if you’re not talking to people who are different from you & have a different philosophy, mindset, experience, whatever. The world is NOT just women or just black people or just Asians or just natural redheads.

You’re going to have to talk to people who aren’t like you sooner or later & it’s better from a learning & maturity standpoint to do it sooner in my book. Plus, you get some great debates & perspectives there.

I’m Not One-Dimensional

Finally, I’m a lot more than just a woman or just this or just that. I think self-segregating professional groups profoundly box you into those categories so when people think of you, they instantly think of a separate bar association or category group.

I don’t want anyone’s first thought about me to be “She’s in that women’s bar association.” Then, I’m just “that woman” not anything else that might be unique or significant & isn’t tied to something I had no control over, or is associated with some past history of oppression or affirmative action.

My sorority feels different since it’s not so tied up in my career or a one-dimensional place where you can’t play devil’s advocate. It’s also more a facet of tradition & men have their fraternities so I think it balances out more.

Where Are the Men’s Bar Associations?

Has anyone seen men’s bar associations? I don’t know of any myself. Could you imagine the outcry if those existed today?

If you’d be pissed about that, ask yourself why any other group should exist. In 2012, can we not just have groups that welcome ALL people & give EVERYONE a voice?

I think having to self-segregate is also a leadership failing in so-called “inclusive” groups that ought to be dealt with to eliminate this need for self-segregation.

See the difference between a social group where you’re just hanging out & talking to people & professional groups like bar associations doing this???

— – —

Thanks, ARL! Readers, what do you think? Are women’s affinity groups useful, or dangerously misguided? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

For more, check out our new series on women in the law: The Confidence Game, and let’s talk about why women aren’t getting ahead in the legal profession, and what can be done about it. My opening manifesto: Why Diversity Matters.

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  1. From the general perspective of affinity groups and their purpose, not sure I agree with much of what is in here and am a member of two affinity groups. I do believe there is a need and purpose for these groups as the playing field is not currently level. I could comment on every section but will limit my comments to one. “having a separate, segregated group is like saying “I’m inferior so I need help to get ahead. I can’t do it alone.” I have never felt inferior and would not join a group for that reason. I also doubt that this has anything to do with why others join. I would and have joined affinity groups to share ideas with like minded people that you have something in common with. This does not mean that you cannot have a mentor of a different gender or race but simply means that ONE of your groups or associations is a group that has been marginalized. I deal with and am members of several other groups where I am one of a handful of minorities so get plenty of exposure to people who are not in my affinity groups. Ok, one more point. The comment “Has anyone seen men’s bar associations?” I see that this comment misses the point of why affinity groups exist in the first place. If the world was a place where everyone was treated equally, these groups would not be necessary. (perhaps still useful in the same way people who love a sport or something might form a group but not needed) Not saying everyone should join an affinity group but I found the angry readhead’s characterization on the negative side.

    • It’s definitely an interesting topic! My primary concern is that some of these groups, which start with the best of intentions, can end up being marginalized (this seems to particularly happen with law firm affinity groups). Suddenly, we don’t have to think about the “women issue” or the “minority issue” or the “LGBT issue” at the top levels, because they’ve got their own group. Isn’t that enough? Well, no, but people sometimes think so.

      But, on the other hand, I’m a huge supporter of groups like Ms. JD (and, obviously, I run a website targeted at female law students), and I think they serve a valuable purpose. So, who’s to say? I’ve got mixed feeling about it.

  2. Well said Ian, and charitably. I have difficulties with virtually every sentence of the exceedingly Angry RedHead’s diatribe. This makes an adequate response–other than in a blog post–impossible . (So Alison, I’m not entirely sure that kicking of a new discussion with a piece of yellow journalism sets a thoughtful tone. But it may be good for SEO.) Anyway, here are a few thoughts:

    1. Social vs. Professional Groups: Women’s bar associations would be among the very first to urge you to get a male mentor. They are in business to support women and attempt to correct the inequities of the market, a market in which women make up only about 15% of equity partners and are often not even invited to serve on management committees. Women’s bar associations offer a wealth of leadership opportunities I promise would not be as readily accessible in other bar associations.

    Also, a woman–even an “attractive” redhead–wishing to develop a self-sustaining legal practice must avail herself of the best tools for building her reputation and professional network. A ‘proper sorority” falls somewhat short on this task. The professional women I know in women’s bar associations already know how to “socialize with men”, and have no intention of “shunning” anyone. Many of us are there with the sole intention of reaching back to help the younger women lawyers, since we know how critical that help can be.

    2. Saying you are different = saying you’re inferior…. I couldn’t follow all the stuff about being an enforcer. And I couldn’t figure out the part about not noticing being attractive or young… this analysis of affinity groups is very far off the mark.

    3. I Don’t Want to Limit my Sources of Professional Support. Couldn’t follow this one either. No women’s bar association would suggest that it offered the only good advice. And it would advise, particularly, that its members actively access the other bar asssociations and other community groups in the market–and get out and both compete and network with men and women alike,. Scoffing at a women’s bar association, however, is most decidedly limiting your sources of professional support.

    I started to respond to the other points but found it disheartening. I think before labeling affinity groups as cesspools of “forced group-think”, inhabited by one-dimensional losers, it might make sense to do the resarch, collect the facts and reassess the legal profession’s actual tolerance for sorrority girls in positions of influence and power. Check also the numbers on compensation and client revenues and you’ll find that if women want to build healthy law practices and climb to the top of their profession they need to plan their careers with great care and utilize the full range of tools available to them, including those offered by affinity groups. Don’t mistake special opportuntities as special needs–you’ll miss something.

    Remember, men don’t need male bar associations. In any given business meeting they may well find there are only men in the room. Certainly there are likely only men in their golf foursome or in the box at the basketball game–where so much business is accomplished.

    Not every woman “needs” a women’s bar association, but most can benefit from the resources it offers, the collegiality and the fast track to positions of influence and high visibility. Many women who become women’s bar presidents deploy the prestige and platform the position offers them and go on to lead the city bar association a year or two later. A good number of women find the women’s bar a fertile area for legal work referrals. They may use the women’s bar as a testing ground, for developing their public speaking and leadership skills while they gear up to addressing a vast room full of mainly men.

    And we are not all the same. No one ever said that– but in the legal profession gender is, and will continue to be, a factor. Socio-economic background is huge. There are many things about our origins and backgrounds that set us apart from one another. The women’s bar association is not a gathering of Stepford wives. To the contrary. It assembles women of all types of backgrounds and with a wide range of experiences, ideas, opinions and perspectives. What we do share in common is less a sense of oppression but of common purposes, and we help one another.

    That is good business. And it is a good way to live too.

    • I’m glad you shared your (very different) experiences with women’s bar association-type groups, which I personally think can be really valuable. If someone asked for my advice, I’d say try it out. Go to a meeting and see if you like the people and their mission, then decide. I’ve certainly been in women-focused groups I loved, and other ones I hated.

      Ironically, my most negative perceptions are actually of social sororities, which is one of the reasons I found this piece so interesting. Having gone to college in the South, in a school with a huge Greek presence, my viewpoint on social sororities is 180 degrees from ARL’s. Makes me wonder if maybe I missed out on a great bonding and networking experience! (Frankly, I don’t think so, since I’m not much of a joiner and am incapable of routinely putting on makeup, but maybe I should have shown up to a few rush events to check out the scene, before deciding it wasn’t for me.)

  3. A PS–Alison–strike the snippy parenthetical about yellow journalism. I was really pretty irritated by this post; which was the point. But I love your blog, and you do a profound service to your constituency. You should post whatever works for you.

    • No worries, I appreciate your thoughts (and you’re welcome to do a guest reply post if you like!).

      As an aside, if I really wanted to optimize my SEO efforts, I’d write exclusively about what to do if you’re unhappy with your law school grades, but that seems rather uninteresting, day after day. 😉

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