Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dutiful Daughters in the Workplace

This is the second post from guest blogger, Prof. Susan Apel of Vermont Law School:

In the seemingly endless conversation about women in the workplace, work-life balance, pay inequities, “leaning in” or not, the New York Times recently published an article, “Four Executives on Succeeding in Business as a Woman.”  These women appear to be in high-powered jobs where the competitive spirit of business hangs heavily in the air.  Amy Schulman, current president of Pfizer, was asked about her two decades in law practice and whether there were any specific challenges that women face in law firms.  She responded, “In my early years as a young lawyer, much of what you’re doing falls into the model of traditional female success, which is the ‘dutiful daughter.’  It’s an expression from Adrienne Rich (note:  also from Simone de Beauvoir) and it means essentially ‘the good girl behind the scenes’—you’re not transgressing the roles that are expected of you.”  She then goes on to say that law firms, as well as the women themselves, seem to have difficulty in women moving  on from the “dutiful daughter” role to partner, which requires different capabilities. 

“Dutiful daughter” strikes me as an apt expression for women in many workplaces, not just law firms.  They are the same women I described over a decade ago as doing much of the “invisible work” in legal academic settings—counseling students, worrying about colleagues, taking on the work of building and maintaining a community in the workplace.  And I wonder about the effect of describing a workplace as a “community” or even more so, as a “family” on these “dutiful daughters.”

In the rough and tumble world of business, a perceptive “dutiful daughter” knows that the role may serve her only so far.  Whether she is actually able to move beyond it, it must be apparent that nice girls may be finishing last.  In the “community” type workplace, this is less apparent when overt competition with one’s colleagues in not the norm.   Dutiful daughtering sustains the community;  it is the lifeblood of the “family.”  “Community” and “family” in the workplace are often appealing concepts to women, and may have many positive consequences.  Might they also, however, be seducing women into traditionally supportive-style behavior and more “invisible work?”  If the workplace is a “family,” do we all move into our traditionally assigned gender roles? Does our building community in our workplaces both nurture us in our daily lives but keep us from moving into other roles?  Moreover, regardless of our view of our professional selves, does it affect how others in the workplace perceive us—a “good” dutiful daughter or, a failure as one?  Because maybe, in the “family”, “dutiful daughter” is an archetype that serves the workplace well, even if it does not serve the women who work.

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