When I was a young girl, it never occurred that I shouldn’t want to be a lawyer. Being a girl didn’t make me feel any less able or likely to be successful in a career as a lawyer. While men still dominated the profession, growing up in the 1980s there were enough pop culture references to women lawyers to make it seem like a reasonable aspiration. Thank you Claire Huxtable and Christine from Night Court! In college I excelled and never considered that my gender might play a role in my success. I was a student, defined more by my affinity toward language (and procrastination), than my ability (or inability) to apply eyeliner on the shuttle bus from my dorm to class. In law school, the girls I went to school with were excelling, and were clearly represented among the top ranks of our class, whether by their grades, leadership on law review or advocacy competitions.
I remember the first time I truly felt naïve. It was right before my third year of law school and I was having a conversation with two very good law school friends of mine. One of them was a few weeks pregnant. On-campus interviews were coming up and we were discussing where we were applying, where we’d love to get interviews, and, of course, what we were going to wear. It was during that conversation that my newly-pregnant friend expressed her fears about her pregnancy showing during these interviews. She was afraid, and it turns out rightfully so, that interviewers would be able to tell that she was pregnant and immediately write her off.
I disagreed with her entirely, told her that that wouldn’t happen – who would overlook her amazing credentials (the girl was and is brilliant) and see only the life growing inside of her and the complications that it brings? No, maybe a few decades ago that would happen, but not now, not today, right?
And then a few months later I was on a phone interview and my whole perception changed. During the interview, I was asked to describe myself. I spent a few minutes explaining who I am, what I want, where I’m from, what makes me who I am. A part of that conversation was the fact that I was recently married. After my explanation, the interviewer had just one question: “So are you planning on having children soon?” And there, right there, is the first time in my life that I ever felt truly naïve.
I got off the phone with him and felt…heartbroken. Why did he just ask me that? Why did he feel like that was appropriate? Why, after minutes of explaining to him who I am, is the only thing that he cared about whether I was planning on becoming a mother?
After a few expletives ran through my mind, I called my friend, the one who months ago had told me I was naïve. And I told her that she was right. Of course she knew that she was right, and she welcomed me to this disappointing enlightenment.
After my disappointing enlightenment, I began collecting stories. What else had I overlooked in my naivety? My Age of Enlightenment got a lot darker. Female friends and mentors shared with me stories of off-handed comments that left lasting scars, like “mothers don’t make good litigators” and “maybe if you lost some weight, you’d have an easier time getting a job.” My naivety lessened and my anger and utter disappointment grew.
I was recently reading the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and a quote struck me: “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Maybe I should have been aware sooner, maybe I was naïve in thinking that the vacant or occupied status of my uterus would never be a topic of conversation with an interviewer. But I’m aware now.
Unfortunately, awareness doesn’t come with solutions. As a gender, we’ve been trying to come up with a solutions for decades. Maybe the solution lies in support, in communication, and in sharing. Maybe it lies in blogs like these and conversations like this. I was recently at a CLE in Austin where I heard an experienced female litigator discussing a sort of Women’s Group they have. They get together, discuss their lives, their struggles and successes, and draw strength from one another’s stories. They help one another during stressful times at work by lending both listening ears and helping hands.
Maybe that’s the solution, or at least the beginning of one. The problem is not universal – my friend was hired by one of those firms she interviewed with, even though they knew she was pregnant, and I work at am amazing firm that encourages a meaningful work-life balance. But the problem is pervasive enough to present problems and to breed an environment where people feel it’s okay to ask about motherhood plans and make the above comments.
Sandberg had another line that has stuck with me: “We need to talk and listen and debate and refute and instruct and learn and evolve.” I think she’s on to something. And I think the women in Austin are on to something, too. Let’s get together and spend some time talking, listening, debating, refuting, instructing, learning, and evolving. I live in the DFW area and work in Dallas, and I’m always available for some coffee and enlightening conversation.