Heather Hansen

2020: The Year of the Feminine-ist

A trial lawyer is a warrior, and for 20 years I’ve been a trial lawyer. I’ve been recognized as a Philadelphia Super Lawyer and one of the Top 50 Female Attorneys in the state of Pennsylvania. And I’ve been inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers, composed of the “preeminent members of the Trial Bar of the United States and Canada”. I believe one of the reasons for my success is that I am a woman, and I am a feminine-ist.

Years ago, I walked into yet another deposition of yet another dying plaintiff. I represent doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice trials, and that means I have to ask questions of a lot of catastrophically injured patients. In this case, the patient was a woman who alleged that my doctor had failed to diagnose the cancer that was killing her. Before I walked into that room, I took a deep breath. I asked God to help me be connected, credible and compassionate. My greatest hope in my work as a trial lawyer is that even if I have to take a patient’s story, I will not take their dignity. I reminded myself of that. I asked to show my curiosity by being a good listener, to be humble and to be present. And I opened the door.

I was the one of three women in the room. All of the other lawyers were men. Trial attorneys are predominantly men so this was not unusual. The other women were the court reporter and the patient I was there to depose. As I settled in, I greeted the attorney for the patient and the other defendants. Medical malpractice lawyers are a relatively small group, and we know each other. The attorney for the patient spoke up.

“Heather, I’ve already told my client to watch out for you. I told her that you will smile at her and seem nice. You will listen closely, and ask caring and compassionate questions. I told her you’ll be patient and empathetic. But I reminded her not to be fooled, because you are not her friend.”

Well ok then. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I looked at the patient, smiled and said “I guess that’s a compliment?” And we began.

It is only now, over 10 years later, that I realize he was confused. Most trial attorneys approach depositions with aggression, anger and even arrogance. I’ve rarely had an attorney question my doctor with kindness and respect, and this attorney certainly hadn’t. This attorney was afraid. He was afraid that my compassion, empathy, humility and listening skills would be an advantage. And he was right. I attribute my success to those very qualities that are seen as most feminine.

We do see certain qualities as feminine. Some of my favorite research on this point was done by linguist Lena Boroditsky, who studied the way that Spanish and German speakers interpreted certain words. In Spain, the word “key” is a feminine noun, and in Germany it is a masculine noun. When researchers asked Spanish speakers to describe a key, they use words like “golden, intricate, lovely” but when German speakers are asked to describe a key they use words like “hard, heavy and useful”. The way we use language makes is clear that human beings attribute certain qualities to certain genders.

And the qualities that we see as feminine will be the qualities we need to succeed in business and in life this year. In my consulting work, I share the tools to allow people to advocate for themselves and their big ideas. And those tools are often thought of as feminine. Let’s start with humility. I believe humility is becoming a buzzword, like authenticity and vulnerability. I’ve recently heard a number of very successful, very driven and arguably arrogant men talking about that word. And I think humility is seen as a feminine quality. It means “freedom from arrogance” and the origin of that word is the earth, on the ground, and low. Historically, women have been seen as “lower” than men, and that may be why humility seems to come to us more easily. That’s an advantage. When you are free from arrogance, you can make connections. When you put yourself low, things flow to you. People share more, and when you ask a question with true humility you get a different answer than when you ask with arrogance. You get the answers you need.

Empathy is another quality that is traditionally seen as feminine. People have defined empathy in a number of ways, but for me it has a specific definition. I believe that perspective-taking is the ability to see things through another’s perspective. That skill is key to anyone’s success. But empathy is taking it one step further and feeling the way the other feels. It is harder, and I don’t think everyone is capable of it. But those who are will win. Empathy may be the single most important characteristic for a leader. Researchers believe that empathetic leaders who listen well will perform 40% higher in overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing. Another point for the feminine.

Listening well, as mentioned above, is also a key to success. And women tend to be better listeners. This might be biological. A Cambridge study found that the part of the brain linked to emotions and the ability to listen was more prominent in women than in men. But that doesn’t mean listening skills can’t be learned. In my consulting practice I work with clients to listen with their eyes, their ears and their hearts. With focus and awareness anyone can become a better listener. I’ve always said that ultimately the best listener wins.

Another quality that will be an advantage in 2020 is compassion. In their book Compassionomics, The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference, Drs Trzeciak and Mazzarelli make the case that compassion could be a wonder drug for the 21st century. They lay out hundreds of peer reviewed studies that show the ROI on compassion in medicine. And if compassion works when the stakes are life and death, I think it’s fair to assume it also works when the stakes are financial, social, and societal. Compassion has traditionally been seen as a feminine quality. In fact, the Dalai Lama has stated that he feels that women have more biological potential for compassion. But he’s wrong. Scientists have found that compassion is innate and instinctual for men and women. And I believe that all of these qualities that we see as feminine are innate and instinctual for all of us.

That’s where feminine-ism comes in. Because if you want to succeed in 2020, no matter your gender, you will want to focus on building and growing your feminine qualities. And a lot of women need help with this too, especially those who, like me, work in a predominantly male arena. Many of us have historically chosen to be more like men and to hide or bury their feminine qualities. When the word “feminine-ism” woke me from a sound sleep a few months ago, I immediately googled it to see whether others were talking about this. And I found this piece by Karen Salmansohn. She argues that women need to embrace their feminine side. Karen is right. But now we need to take it a little further.

Now both men and women need to be aware of the power of their feminine-ism. We all need to see that humility, empathy, compassion and the ability to listen well are the keys to a future where everyone wins. And we all need to work on honing those qualities.

I didn’t let that attorney’s statement at the beginning of his client’s deposition change the way I asked her questions. I looked her in the eye and abandoned all arrogance. I worked to see things the way she saw them, and then feel things the way she felt them. When she answered, I listened with my eyes, my ears, and my heart. I didn’t do it to win, nor did I do it because I’m a woman. I did it because I’m a human, even when I have to go to war.

After the deposition, I packed up my binders and glanced over at the injured patient. She looked at me, smiled and mouthed “Thank you.” Ultimately that case resolved. There was no winner, and there was no loser. (Although I could argue that my feminine-ism allowed her to become more amenable to settlement.) But that day, in that moment? She and I had both won.

Heather Hansen

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