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The New Girls' Network: 'The Polite Little Girl in the Room'?

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Every year The Center for WorkLife Law, which I direct, runs a leadership academy for women law firm partners. One key message we send is that sometimes what it takes to make partner is different from what it takes to rise in the partnership.

"I've noticed that the women work so exceptionally hard," said a management consultant, when I asked her whether she thought women have to Prove It Again! "It's really hard for anyone to be biased against them because they are doing above and beyond many of their male peers." This could be, she continued, because they sense the bias. Or it could be that "there's something cultural about a level of accommodating men -- and mostly their bosses are men -- where they do whatever they say, they never push back, they don't know how to say no. And so they become incredibly valued on the junior level."

"As long as the woman is being the workhorse, they're fine," continued the consultant. On the other hand, when it comes to promotion, "they are looking for something other than a workhorse." Often the women are doing "all sorts of administrative things because they don't know how to say no and they think, 'I'm gonna be a good doobie and I'll be rewarded later.'" (Despite what you younger readers may imagine the lingo of my generation to be, "doobie" does not exclusively mean a joint -- in this case, the consultant means a "goodie-two-shoes")

The partners "love them for it, but it doesn't mean that that's who they want to run the ship. You have to assert yourself, so you're not just seen as the polite little girl in the room and seen as a leader," said an in-house lawyer. You have to show that you are good at strategic thinking, to "own some of the meat and potatoes parts of the projects."

So the first lesson: Being the dutiful daughter doesn't often lead to the top. In a law firm, if it leads to partnership, the role will typically be that of a "service partner": someone who does the work of clients while another partner brings them in (the "rainmaker").

This can be an intellectually challenging role. It can be a valued role. But, at most firms, it is a vulnerable role. Because if your rainmaker leaves the firm, there's no guarantee he will leave with you -- and you may be stranded. Even if that doesn't happen, the path to power at most firms is to be a rainmaker.

So how does one break out of being the dutiful daughter? It's not that easy. Because, keep in mind, one reason women flock to the role is that men -- who are already in leadership roles in the firm -- like dutiful daughters.

The lawyer offered some good advice. You don't have to go in, she points out, and say "What will it take to be promoted?" This approach, while it often works for men, often does not work for women because of The Tightrope: Women often receive pushback men don't receive for being seen as too ambitious. Instead you can say, "I'd really like to work on an exciting new project and I'm willing to work really hard."

Or try this: Go to someone who is not the dad to your dutiful daughter and say, "I think what you do is fascinating, and I would really like to do that kind of work. Is there something I could help you with?" If the answer is no, end the conversation with "I'll check back in a couple of weeks, just to keep in touch."

OMG, say you, what if I don't know how to do that kind of work? What if I make a mistake?

Women often are faulted for being too timid. "They internalize every freaking thing," said the consultant. "And so, they're afraid to do something that they're not perfect at." Women tend to wait until they can do something perfectly, whereas men figure, "I'm 65 percent there, so I can wing it."

Which approach is right?

Men's and women's different approaches each make sense in context. Their approaches are different because men and women are in very different situations.

Women's mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer. "When I came up for partner, a mistake I made in the second year was held against me. The fact that I learned from my mistake, and that men had made similar mistakes -- none of that mattered," said one lawyer.

Women's mistakes are literally riskier: "A man takes a big risk and makes a mistake, that's considered risky, but he's taking a chance; a woman does it, then it's just a big mistake," said one woman in a focus group of professors.

Women often are berated for their lack of confidence. But their timidity stems from their sense of having more to lose -- which they often do. Saying that women don't get ahead because they lack confidence is a good example of using past discrimination to justify future discrimination.

Ladies, I understand that you feel at risk when you put yourself out there. But keep in mind that men are under intense pressures to be "successful men" -- gender pressures that ensure that many men will overcome their natural hesitancy and just go for it. You are not under similar gender pressures, which in one sense is a blessing. But the fact is that these workplaces are shaped around what men typically do, because that's who they were invented for, and that's who still populates the top rungs of the partnership.

So you need to screw up your courage to the sticking place, and just do it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But it's more than that. In this legal environment, sometimes the risk-averse approach of being the polite little girl in the room is, in fact, riskier than going after what you want. And remember, once you've snagged that work you find so exciting, you will be able to turn down that good-girl administrative work with grace. "I would really love to do it, but I am just flat out working with X right now."

Make sense? Let us know at The New Girls' Network.