Gender discrimination happens. Let’s not pretend that it doesn’t. I have not, in my short life as a lawyer, ever felt that I was not getting the same opportunities as my male counterparts. But I don’t pretend that it doesn’t happen. Recently, I had an interaction with a senior lawyer from an out-of-state firm that reminded me how lucky I am.
Let me set the scene. The event was hosted by lawyers and held for lawyers. So, waitstaff aside, everyone present was a practicing lawyer. When I arrived, I saw a female colleague of mine (a lawyer), and went over to say hello.
Standing with her was a junior female associate and a senior male partner, both from the same firm. I reached out to shake the partner’s hand and introduce myself. As I did, he said, “You look like you’re from the Mid-West.”
Uhhh, Come again?
Folks, I’ve been called a lot of things but never have I been presumed to be “from the Mid-West” at first sight. I hadn’t said a word, so he couldn’t have misunderstood my Philly accent for a Minnesota accent (not that the two would be easily confused). My haircut is asymmetrical. I wear a diamond stud nose ring. I was dressed more like an artist than a lawyer.
Totally perplexed, I asked, “Oh, really? Why is that?”
He responded—sincerely, I might add—“Because you’re blonde. Well, at least for today.”
Wow. Indeed I was a blonde that day (and pretty much every day of my life except for a few months in 2004 when I dared to have my hair dyed a chestnut brown, to the utter horror of just about everyone I knew. . . but I digress).
The partner, if you recall, is talking to three female lawyers, all three of whom are full-time practicing litigators. And, to these same three female lawyers, he proceeded to describe how, at a former firm, he had been the partner in charge of recruiting new attorneys. He went on to recount that, in his experience, the female candidates were always the best. They were always the smartest. They were always the most driven.
The “problem” he went on to explain, was that, as we (the three female full-time lawyers standing near enough to knock his block off), “surely knew,” no matter how well intentioned “these” candidates were and no matter how sincerely they may have meant it at the time, although they said that they were going to get married, “have babies,” and return to work, the “reality” was that “we all knew” that they would never come back after having children.
Really? No, really?
This seasoned lawyer did not hesitate for a second before telling us this grossly sexist story reflecting his deep-seeded belief that gender discrimination in the workplace is standard operating, apparently convinced that the three women standing in front of him (again, it bears repeating, within striking distance), were, undoubtedly, going to agree with him about the sheer absurdity of the idea that law firms would even bother to try to hire female lawyers because, as “we all know,” there was absolutely no chance of long-term retention.
So, what are the lessons to be learned from this? I’ll offer you two, though there are surely many more.
First, it’s a good reminder to me, a woman who (very thankfully) has not had to work with someone who, at least not openly, held such biased opinions about inequality among the sexes. It’s a good reminder, specifically, not to assume that all workplaces are like my own—clearly, they are not.
Second, it’s a good reminder for employers to keep their eyes and ears open for this kind of commentary. I cannot imagine that this was a recent epiphany by the senior partner. It’s probably a safe bet that he had made similar pronouncements in the past. So shame on his partners for having failed to put a stop to it.
And a third by way of a bonus tip. In the even that you, dear reader, are ever inclined to express your opinion that a class of people are generally less worthy than yourself, may I suggest that you do so outside of arm’s reach of members of that class? It’s a matter of self-preservation more than anything.