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What women should do when they're told they don't 'look like' lawyers

Staci Zaretsky writes, "Women in the legal profession face a unique kind of bias. Because they can stray from the archetypal lawyer’s uniform of a suit and tie, they’re forced to deal with comments and criticisms about their style of dress. No matter how conservative their apparel outside of standard suiting, these critiques have given rise to the ultimate nonpliment for women lawyers: they’re often told that they don’t look like lawyers, as if that’s something that ought to be appreciated.

What can women do when they receive this type of backhanded compliment?

A similar question was asked in a recent Social Q’s column in the New York Times:

"I am a female lawyer in my early 30s. I am reasonably attractive and dress in a stylish yet conservative way. At networking events, when I introduce myself to non-lawyers, I am often met with a friendly laugh and: 'You don’t look like a lawyer.' It has started to bother me. I am not sure if they are commenting on my gender, age, demeanor or all of the above. My goal is to develop business. How should I respond?"

Philip Galanes, the writer behind the Social Q’s advice column who happens to be an attorney (he once worked at Paul Weiss and Debevoise & Plimpton), has some wonderful advice for women who encounter situations like this. He acknowledges that anyone can be a lawyer, no matter what they look like, and then offers this recommendation: "If you want to know what ‘You don’t look like a lawyer’ means, ask. But do it in the same chuckling way your new acquaintances did: ‘What does that mean?’ Not only will they tell you, but by engaging with them gently on a subject deeper than traffic or weather, you may persuade them that you are exactly the attorney they need."

Guidance like this is exactly right. If people engage in this subtle form of sexism by telling women that they don’t think they look like lawyers, those women must prove their detractors wrong."


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