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In the spirit of International Women’s Day this blog is a collection of personal anecdotes from my time as a trainee and solicitor, prior to joining Kingsley Napley, and the questions these experiences have raised for me about gender attitudes in professional contexts and in general. Sometimes the line and when it’s crossed is obvious. In these cases it’s easy to know when behaviour or comments are inappropriate and when it’s acceptable to challenge them. Other times the line is blurred and it’s harder to know whether it’s appropriate to react and how we should do so effectively.
In this blog I’d simply like to open up a discussion on where the line is and through personal anecdotes show why the treatment of women in professional situations means that International Women’s Day is still relevant.
1. Networking hazards part 1 – Salad Gate
As a fresh faced and eager to please trainee solicitor I attended my first networking event with colleagues. I was pleased to have been invited and was merrily socialising and discussing real estate market trends in mid-town. It hadn’t occurred to me that my female colleague (a 2 year qualified solicitor) and I were the only women in the room until the conversation turned randomly to barbecuing. Various barbeque brands and grilling techniques were discussed, and then I heard “Sorry ladies, Men’s business”. Laughter. A few minutes later someone said, “my wife makes a mean salad.” “Oh yes“, they all nodded in our direction - apparently this now included us.
I felt somewhat offended and surprised that at a networking event where we were all meant to be professional equals there was an assumption that my colleague and I were automatically excluded from the majority of this conversation because barbequing was “Man's Work” whereas salad spinning was deemed a woman’s sphere. Surely, despite being in the same decade that Blade Runner was set in, such gender stereotypes were not acceptable, at least not in a professional context?
Riled up with a witty comeback, I looked to my colleague and noted she was laughing along. So having only been in the job a few weeks I took my social queue from her, plastered on a fixed smile and a ladylike laugh. Afterwards, I was annoyed at myself for not speaking up. I’m not sure what I would have said or how I could have said it, but I felt I could have said something to challenge the assumptions being made. I asked my colleague about this and she was surprised I had even noticed saying, “it’s just guys being guys”. I had been offended but my colleague hadn’t. Was Salad Gate an example of gender disparity in the workplace, or was it just my problem?
2. Interview hazard - I’m more of a backpack girl
At a job interview for a Solicitor role I walked into the interview room, shook hands with Mr X and Mr Y, both Partners at a London city firm and was immediately asked where my handbag was.
“My handbag?” “I ask in puzzlement.
“Yes your handbag, I thought women didn't go anywhere without their handbags” Mr Y replies, looking at Mr X for validation, who half smiles/shrugs at Mr Y (I think Mr Y has gone off-script), whilst looking at me apologetically –
“Uh huh, well I’m more of a backpack kind of girl” I rather scathingly retort, and then I warily sit down for the interview.
3. She’s a brilliant lawyer – Yeah but is she hot?
On one occasion over dinner I was giving a glowing report of a female partner I had worked with. I described her professional successes, her drive, and technical ability. One of the guys at the table immediately followed up with “what does she look like?” and another, “yeah is she hot“? And they proceeded to Google her image on the firm’s website.
I was and still am speechless. Here I was listing the professional accolades of a respected partner and the admiration was on ice until her appearance was affirmed.
4. Networking hazards part 2 - The over-enthusiastic feminist
At a networking event a group of female colleagues and I got chatting to a very nice man. During the conversation he asked if we prefer working with men or women. Very quickly and assertively I almost shouted at him “I don't think it matters which gender a person is!! It's how good you are at the job that matters”. Another colleague chimed in by light-heartedly adding “yeah basically we prefer anyone that’s not totally obnoxious!” and then we carried on having a really good conversation.
Was I being an over-enthusiastic feminist and interpreting his question the wrong way or is the fact that he even asked the question an indicator of some bias that should be questioned?
In January this year I listened to a Woman's Hour episode, which was celebrating the women's marches that had taken place all over world. One listener, Martin, wrote in and said that he couldn't help but notice that the route of the women's march in London had gone past lots of shoe shops and January sales.
Sometimes the line and when it’s crossed is obvious. In these cases it’s easy to know when behaviour or comments are inappropriate and when it’s acceptable to react. For example, in my 3rd anecdote when all that matters is how a woman looks, or Martin’s comments above, or when Donald Trump accused journalist Megyn Kelly of asking hard-hitting questions because she was having her period, there’s no doubt about the line.
Other times, like Salad Gate, the line is blurred and it’s harder to know when it’s been crossed. My 4th anecdote shows how subjective the line can be and I think it’s up to each of us each time we have or witness an experience where we think the line might be blurred to question it.
Of course, most men and women are not Martins, or Trumps, or my idiotic dinner companions. But whilst the Martins of the world are out there (heck you might even know some too), whilst your female colleagues, friends, daughters, sisters and mothers' professional status continues on some level to be defined by their gender, whilst women's equality remains a "women's issue", International Women's Day is still relevant and we can all do what we can to question gender attitudes and to call out and engage with the Martins.
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