“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”
Talk to women lawyers, and many of them will tell you the same thing about gender bias. That “same thing” is that, when they call it out, they are told that they are imagining things. That they are imagining that they are being denied opportunities because of their gender. That they are imagining that they are being held to different standards because they are women. Yes, imagining it.
The explanations for why they may be imaging it are as lame as being told that “boys will be boys.” According to my friend Andrea Kramer and her husband Alton Harris in their book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, other such lame explanations are:
I understand this completely. Here’s my story from so many years ago.
As a first year associate, and one of only two women lawyers in a firm of over 25 men, I was assigned to a case that required travel to gather the facts and prepare for arbitration. As the time approached when I would be traveling with a male partner, rumors started to spread in the law firm. A particular partner was speculating aloud about a man and a woman traveling together and “one thing leading to another.” He was using my name and including me in compromising scenarios, and it was despicable.
It also was a first. Because I and one other female were the first women lawyers at the firm, traveling with a male colleague was a new topic of conversation. And, the conversation was salacious. By the time that I became aware of it, something had to be done. Several of the other male partners offered to help, but I declined their offers. I told them that I would take care of it myself.
So, I walked into the offending partner’s office and asked to have a word with him. I also asked for permission to close the door, and after I did, I made it clear to him that I knew what he was saying and that I found it completely unprofessional. I told him that I was a happily married woman and that his remarks were harming my husband as much as they were harming me.
His response was lame. “Why, Susan, you don’t have a sense of humor,” to which I replied, “And Mr. X, you don’t have a sense of dignity.” I told him that I found his behavior very offensive and that it was not what I expected when I joined the law firm. And, I told him that it needed to stop immediately.
It did stop. He stopped the offensive speculation, and he also stopped talking to me entirely. In fact, he did not talk to me for almost six months. That also meant that he was not looking down my blouse or commenting on my perfume during that same time period. AND, when he did start talking to me again, it was with new-found respect.
Remember, he was a partner, and I was a first year associate. Yes, my knees were knocking when I walked into his office. Yes, I did not know where the conversation would lead. Yes, I was taking a chance with my job. But I also knew something else.
You should NEVER, put up with lame excuses for being treated unfairly because you are a woman. Face down gender bias. If it means that you must leave your employer, you will know that it was no place for you to begin with.
No job is worth being demeaned and disrespected.
I first met Lori Mihalich-Levin soon after her first baby was born and when she was in the overwhelmed-by-baby-and-the-thought-of-returning-to-work stage. Our lunches were enjoyable but a bit somber. She was struggling, and I wanted to help her.
Lori and I had been connected by a mutual friend at Georgetown Law. Although there were many years between my years at the law school and Lori’s, we had a lot in common. Returning to law practice after not just one, but two, babies had been difficult for me, and now that was happening to Lori. It is hard to know what to say because law practice has its own set of rules. Nothing is easy there — especially for women.
In time, Lori figured it all out, as I knew she would. Lori’s overwhelmed stage morphed into the wisdom-and-I-can-do-anything stage, as with so many women who experience it. But, Lori did not stop there. She wrote down her thoughts and developed programs to pass on to others the benefit of all she had painstakingly learned. Lori is the exception. First she started a “Mindful Return” program, and then she wrote a book. In her spare time, of course!
You can read all about Lori, her book and her projects in this article in the Washington Post. It captures all of the profiles of the book, which is made richer by myriad contributions from experts in the many fields that combine to capture a daunting experience. Honestly, nothing in my life prepared me for the first time I had to drive away from my baby — not to the grocery store, not to the post office, and certainly not to the law office. It is in a league of its own for creating doubt and fear and longing.
But, that “baby” of mine is now a woman lawyer, too. Children survive and thrive, and so do Mommy Lawyers. But, it never hurts to have a little help from a friend.
Lori is that friend. Get the book!
John R. Wooden
The subject of the low retention rates for women lawyers, as published recently on Law.com, was addressed in last week’s blog. What? You did not read the last blog? Shame, shame. I write them so that you will read them and have a “leg up” in making career decisions. Fortunately, former blogs are so easy to find on my web site. But to help you out, here is the link to that blog. I understand how busy you are.
The solutions offered by the Law.com article focus on the needs to run law firms more like traditional businesses to eliminate some of the administrative tasks for junior lawyers, the use of fixed fee billing arrangements to increase the exposure that junior lawyers will have to higher value projects, an increased use of technology, and clear paths to partnership and metrics-based evaluations systems in making partnership decisions.
Those are all good thoughts, and some of them might work. However, I like to focus more directly on the causes for the high attrition in finding solutions to improve associate retention, which, of course, includes retention of women lawyers.
One way or another, law firms are going to have to address these issues. I have been focusing on most of these issues for a decade now through the Best Friends at the Bar project, and, admittedly, the solutions are not easy. However, that is no reason not to put our shoulders to the wheel and find effective and lasting solutions. The future of the profession depends on it.