Recently I attended a cocktail reception at a downtown law firm. Present were lawyers, judges and businessmen/women. The crowd was large and the atmosphere was jolly. It was a celebration of sorts.
As I was standing there, I was approached by a lawyer who had a non-lawyer friend with him. The lawyer came up to me, introduced his friend and offered a hug, to which his friend said, “Don’t I get a hug, too?”
I hugged the man, while at the same time I heard the lawyer say something extremely offensive and sexist to his friend about me. He certainly said it loud enough for me to hear.
I was so taken aback that I stood there with my mouth agape. They moved on, but I did not.
The rest of my evening was ruined and spent in a fog. The comment gnawed at me for days until I mentioned it to one of my dear friends in the profession. She was even more offended than I and said, “You have to say something.”
I thought, say what, and to whom? Say something to him, his boss?
Still stinging from the comment, I was confused. I’m a couple of months away from turning 60, and I’m still clueless when something like this occurs. My uncertainty on how to deal with the matter answered my question: “What do I do?”
If I’m clueless, other women probably are too, thus I chose to write this letter.
I entered the legal profession in 1986, where the female-to-male ratio in law school was around 35 percent. (Today women make up the majority in law schools throughout the country).
We were all in the same miserable boat, so I didn’t really feel any disrespect directed at me from my fellow (male) law students. Unfortunately, the professors were a different story, as most of them were still getting used to women in the profession.
Upon graduation in 1986, I moved on to the practice of law. I was with a private firm in Pittsburgh for a year prior to moving to Illinois after marrying. In Illinois, I joined the state’s attorney’s office, where at that time “boys will be boys” and girls had to join in just to survive.
I am not proud of the fact that women in the office would join in the banter with the men in hopes of being a part of the crowd, but that was in the ’80s, and the #MeToo movement was not yet afoot. At the time vulgarity was not something that offended me, as I knew I had to “go along to get along.”
I wasn’t the only one. I am not by any means degrading the state’s attorney’s office, as that was probably the best time of my life, and perhaps my favorite job (for reasons other than mentioned). We had to put up with comments from defense attorneys as well as judges. One colleague, during a pretrial conference, was told to “go get a male assistant to help you negotiate this case.”
Can you imagine if a judge said that to a young female assistant today?
We were much more intimidated then, as women were still in the minority in the profession.
After getting on the bench, the fraternity was not as strong as in the office and things seemed much tamer. Sure, you had to put up with men calling you “sweetie” while on the bench, but I chalked that up to “his advanced age.” I was never offended.
Not being offended and putting up with these comments became exhausting the older I became.
I no longer “giggle” at crass things said by men, and I certainly try not to “join in the fun.”
Unfortunately, I did not come to this position earlier in my career.
I write this letter to encourage all female attorneys younger than me not to wait until you’re 60. Stop giggling and start talking.
I commented on a lawyer’s inappropriate behavior to a young female attorney friend of mine. Her response was, “Oh, that’s just him. He’s our comic relief.”
No, he is not your comic relief, he is your worst nightmare!
Why do we make excuses? As women, we must have self-respect or no one will respect us. It’s not funny, it’s not right, it’s offensive and vulgar and we have to begin to stand up.
It boggles my mind that in today’s culture, the #MeToo movement, that men would continue to talk like this. Do they not read the newspapers, listen to the daily news reports? Do they have no respect for their wives, their daughters, their colleagues?
Some ask, “What will it take for this to stop?”
I will tell you exactly what it will take. It will take all of us to stand up and say “enough is enough.”
When someone makes an inappropriate comment, we must say, “that’s not nice” or “that’s inappropriate” or “please don’t talk like that in front of me” without fear of being fired or blackballed.
We have to stop thinking we may be labeled as a “snitch” or “a prude.” We must think of ourselves as the strong women we are, the strong women who got through three years of law school, who worked diligently to pass the bar, get a job in the profession, and perhaps raise a family while still working.
If you are strong enough to do all of these things, you are certainly strong enough to stand up to a man who treats you with disrespect.
You are probably thinking, “Well, you didn’t say anything to that man.” No, I didn’t, because I was in complete and utter shock over what was said to me.
I thought, if he had the nerve to say that to a judge, imagine what he will say to a female lawyer, a law clerk or a secretary. I intend to give him this letter prior to publication and let him know he was the genesis. I will also tell him that if he ever speaks to me or any other woman this way again, I will deal with it differently.
I regret that my reaction was delayed, but I will react differently in the future. I write this so we will all act immediately upon hearing offensive comments from here on out. Please learn from my mistakes.
To all of the young female lawyers in our profession, be strong. Don’t tolerate this behavior as the women in my age group did. Now that the gender gap is very narrow, you no longer have to be weak (as we were) and in fear of your job security. There is comfort and strength in numbers.
Take advantage of it, don’t be taken advantage of.
Let’s move on together to change our profession.