Feminism in the Workplace Supports Everyone
I didn’t think much about feminism as a child or young woman. I didn’t have to. Kids learn much more from their parents’ examples than from their words, and my mother’s taught me that the sky was the limit. Besides being the primary, then sole, breadwinner in our family, she achieved a great deal of career success -- more than most men in her profession. So I simply didn’t believe in this “glass ceiling” for women when I first heard of it around age twelve, and I certainly didn’t believe it could or would ever apply to me.
Over time things changed, albeit slowly. In law school, I attended a panel of the women’s association. Four women, all mothers, spoke. All were Big Law attorneys, meaning they worked at some of the world’s most elite law firms -- firms that demanded major time commitments from their lawyers. So great were these demands that the standard 40-hour workweek in most professions would be considered very part-time. So great were these demands that each speaker had chosen to work part-time.
Two of the speakers were associates. One said that while her part-time arrangement was working well, a number of others were struggling. She noted that Big Law’s demands were rigorous, and so sometimes attorneys with 60% or 80% arrangements would be called on to work all day, every day -- sometimes for weeks on end. Part-time attorneys who didn’t have full-time help with the kids wouldn’t be able to respond to heightened work demands and so would eventually "drop the ball" at work, at home, or both. The other panelists all nodded in agreement.
The other two speakers were partners, meaning they’d been promoted to the highest echelons of their respective firms. They were la crème de la crème. One took my breath away. She noted she’d been surprised when her firm voted her into the partnership. She responded by saying that she wasn’t prepared to return to full-time work; her kids still needed her. She was shocked by what came next:
We know. We’re promoting you anyway.
The accounts I’ve heard since then include:
- One Big Law partner desperately wanted to move to an in-house role (that is, a job at a company or financial institution rather than a firm). This lawyer kept trying to transition on the QT, despite the high pay and prestige associated with partnership in Big Law, because he didn’t want to have to choose between career success and watching his kids grow up.
- An associate practicing at one of the most prestigious international law firms begged his recruiter to get him out of there. Nearly all of his vacations had been cancelled for work emergencies. He couldn’t even make plans for dinner and/or drinks with friends on weekends.
- A senior attorney (not a partner) at an even more elite international law firm was both the primary breadwinner and the primary caregiving parent as his wife was unable to perform either of these roles. He therefore worked a reduced schedule. Many attorneys at his firm, including within his own group, found it difficult to comprehend his set-up. It was actually a female partner who understood, saw the value he added, and made sure there was a place for him. But she knew that that place might evaporate if and when she retired.
Once I put it all together, I realized I’d heard this once before - from another lawyer, in fact. In a podcast interview with Mike Lewis, Brenda Berkman described leaving a career in the law to become one of the FDNY’s first female firefighters.
Berkman had been the sole named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that blew open the FDNY to women. Just as the FDNY announced women could apply to the academy in 1977, the department instituted its most rigorous physical exam ever - one which was formulated not based on the physical demands of the job, but rather to keep women out.
Because there weren’t yet others like her in the FDNY, Brenda connected with similarly groundbreaking women the world over and in many different professions, as well as, among others, firefighters of color. Critically, she noted that breaking down barriers for women was equally freeing for male firefighters. It freed them from having to conform to one specific (hyper-masculine) mold.
My head still spins when I think of that female partner in law school and her partners’ words: We’re promoting you anyway (no need to return to full-time work). Her firm promoted her when it didn’t have to, as she’d long assumed she’d removed herself from partnership contention when she went part-time.
Yet as benevolent as the firm obviously was, it wasn’t so good that it had clearly-defined avenues and opportunities for success for those who wanted to be involved parents as well as successful professionals -- be they men or women and whether full-time or part-time attorneys.
We must move past the assumption that the desire to have a personal life or be a present parent is uniquely feminine. Then the entire discussion changes. It’s no longer about women being unique or requiring unique accommodations. It’s about facilitating success for everyone.
[Related: My Metric for Success? It's All About Impact]
A mom, wife, and lawyer-turned-recruiter, EJ Peters is now the host of a YouTube show, Doomsday Happy Hour, focusing on comedy and career success. She interviews pioneering women, career-changers, career and resume/interview coaches, and even a few men. Visit her at www.doomsdayhappyhour.com.
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Doomsday Happy Hour
A mom, wife, and lawyer-turned-recruiter, EJ Peters now hosts a weekly YouTube show, Doomsday Happy Hour, focusing on comedy and careers. She interviews pioneering women, career-changers, career and resume/interview coaches, and a few men. Visit her at www.doomsdayhappyhour.com. Continue Reading
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