Friday, October 8, 2021

Women Law Deans, Gender Sidelining, and Presumptions of Incompetence

Laura Padilla, Women Law Deans, Gender Sidelining, and Presumptions of Incompetence, Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law, & Justice (forthcoming).

Although the percentage of female law deans has increased to approximately 32.5% from 18.7% in the 2005-06 academic year, there is still much work to be done.  As Professor Padilla points out, these numbers are still not reflective of representation of women in the general population or entering law schools.  Furthermore, women of color are represented at an even greater disparity at just 9% (up from 1.8% in the 2005-06 academic year).

In this article, Professor Padilla discusses a number of reasons for the disparity and the challenges unique to female deans and female deans of color once in this pivotal leadership role.  Among these is presumptions of incompetence.  “It is remarkable that women with top qualifications which equal or outdo men’s qualifications still endure prove-it-again bias, are questioned about their competency, and are rarely recognized as capable until they prove otherwise.” Another example is gender sidelining. Gender sidelining can take many forms including women being “interrupted more, and hav[ing] their ideas more harshly scrutinized,” excluded from “interacting with powerful donors or alumni, or otherwise conducting business where women are rare,” and being put under pressure to “overcome the resentment of their colleagues by making extraordinary efforts to ‘fit in’ and put others at ease.”  Additionally, “[w]omen’s mistakes tend to be noticed with greater frequency and are remembered for longer; they tend to be judged more rigorously than men by their superiors; and they tend to receive more polarized evaluations.”  Having to navigate these additional challenges on top of an already demanding position is an untenable situation facing female law deans.  “The battles are real and the impacts can be devastating, but they can also lead to greater strength, resilience, and satisfaction.”

Creating the environment where women deans are able to get to “greater strength, resilience, and satisfaction” requires intentionality. “Women bring something new and different to leadership: a greater willingness to change, be flexible, and approach old problems in new ways.” As pointed out in this article, it is “intriguing to consider how much more productive women leaders would be if they could just focus on their work without dodging so many unnecessary challenges.”  To help current women deans be successful, and encourage the recruitment and retention of new deans, the article suggests a number of concrete steps an institution can take.  These include continuing to increase women in leadership, because opening those doors in any institution makes it easier for the doors to open for others and reduces tokenism; promoting a broader range of leadership styles and recognizing when a preferred leadership style may have gendered connotations; providing ongoing support and training, including mentorship; and promoting an institutional culture of calling out biases and encouraging allyship.  Institutions committed to inclusion at all levels of leadership should utilize these tools to, as Professor Padilla writes, “flip the script on these destructive forces and celebrate the strength, change, and opportunities women bring to law school communities through their leadership.”

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