Advising Female Graduates

Hello to everyone and thanks to Dan for inviting me to post this month.

I wanted to begin by noting an article that appeared in today’s New York Times. In it, Lisa Belkin surveys the flood of research on how women in the workplace are viewed differently than men. Belkin’s article cites many studies, all of which will sound familiar—probably because if you haven’t heard of the study she is discussing, you’ve heard of one that had similar results. These studies all boil down to the same conclusion: women are perceived to lack whatever qualities are most valued in the workplace, at least when compared to men who are behaving the same way as their female counterparts.

As Belkin explains, women are advised:

Don’t get angry. But do take charge. Be nice. But not too nice. Speak up. But don’t seem like you talk too much.

She continues:

These are academic and professional studies, not whimsical online polls, and each time I read one I feel deflated. What are women supposed to do with this information? Transform overnight? And if so, into what? How are we supposed to be assertive, but not, at the same time?

Belkin’s article has made me consider what I say to graduating female law students. My gender-specific advice always involves the thorny issue of balancing a legal career and children. I don’t say anything about the situation that all female graduates will find themselves in: that is, being a woman in a legal workplace.

I’m wondering what advice others give on this topic, or what valuable counsel others have received. If you have anything useful, please pass it along.

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2 Responses

  1. My experience with the law has been pretty darn great. I began practice in 1980 in a world populated primarily by men. It took me a little while to get my sea legs — you know — not too hard and not too soft. Then it took everyone else — secretaries, Judges, opposing counsel, clients — to adjust, but I genuinely cannot give you a post-1985 example of feeling hindered in my career because I was a woman.

    Here’s what I learned when sexism was not only rampant, but above-board between ’80 and ’85 — the clients who objected to being “assigned” to a “female associate” were TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY by any performance that would have earned a “B” grade. You learn to use the weight of people’s prejudices against them by just stepping out of the way and letting them fall. They learn, you don’t get a bloody nose and your career moves forward with some pretty happily astonished clients who have discovered this brilliant WOMAN.

    Listen, we women have advantages and they have advantages. If I were allowed to choose a gender in 21st century America, you can bet your bottom dollar I’d choose female.

    As Williams Carlos Williams wrote, “you can’t get the news from a poem, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Substitute friendship and intimacy and feeling one’s own life in all its dimensionality and you’ll get the point. There are far more men than women who “die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

    So, please don’t emulate men, ladies, when you enter the profession. Follow your heart, build your own book of business, network your $%#@ off, save time for family, friends and community, and your lives will be full and rewarding. It’s a great career and one that has several second, third and fourth acts.

    NOBODY can have it all but when you measure your own life experience against your male colleagues 10, 20, 30 and 40 years out, I think you’ll agree that being a woman professional, particularly a woman attorney, has been a great gig.

    Hang in there. Share with your “sisters” and be supportive of one another. You will accomplish great things.

  2. Kaimi says:

    I recently had an hour-long conversation on this topic with a female friend who’s in law school (not the school I’m at), and it boiled down to, “pick your battles.”

    I told her the horror stories — things I saw and heard when I was in practice. Yes, there are wonderful, non-sexist lawyers out there, and they’re increasingly the norm. There are also lots of sexist attorneys. There are some attorneys who are general-purpose people-haters, and who employ sexist approaches to women (though they really hate everyone.) There is still a lot of low-level sexual harassment; women attorneys get hit on by partners, and have to pick whether or not to make a stink about it; there is bias against women based on the idea that women all want to become full-time baby-makers.

    I told her, it sucks. You don’t know whether the attorneys you end up working with will treat you well. You may end up on the receiving end of harassment, and then you have to decide what to do. Is it bad enough that you file a complaint? Do you just try to informally move away from the situation?

    Plus, there’s the increasing use of gender as a positive (of sorts), from the practical reality that everyone uses different means to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. Some associates (mainly men) are plugged into the networks of golfing and yachting and so on; and some associates (mainly women) consciously choose to be a little flirty, because they think it will advance their career. Is that a choice my married friend wants to make? Being pretty can get attention for a low-level associate; can draw clients or partners; on the other hand, it tends to channel that attention in potentially harmful ways. What are the pros and cons of being the pretty attorney in the mini-skirt? Does she really want to make herself into a lipstick feminist to advance her career?

    I didn’t offer any answers to these questions; I think they’re ones to which everyone has to figure out their own answers.