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Being a something

It is difficult to understand other people’s intentions. This is the genesis of both romantic comedy and divorce. We stumble around, using experience and inference as proxies for understanding, and hope to land on something approaching truth. It’s easy, then, to feel on shaky ground when new to a situation and struggling to figure out one’s place.

When I started working at a law firm, I was frequently both the most junior person and the only woman in the room. When a partner asked me to make copies or take notes, I complied. When, late at night, a partner tossed some papers on my desk to revise, explaining that his secretary had gone home, I agreed. But it’s hard to ignore the voice that asks why. In my absence, a junior male associate might be asked to do the same tasks, though he wouldn’t wonder why this was requested. That is the frustration of being the only something in the room.

Non-somethings don’t see it this way. Some studies indicate that if a room is 17% women, the men in the group think it’s an even gender split. If there are 33% women, the men think women are in the majority. I’ve been recruited into settings where I was promised that there were equal numbers of men and women and “tons of gay people and minorities.” I recently asked some male colleagues whether our senior management team was divided equally between men and women: they all said yes. The actual number is about 25% women. It’s hard to fight for inclusion when you’re abstracted into fiction.

This is a perceptual problem that extends to offsite group activities as well. In law and business, someone is always golfing, preparing to golf, or discussing golf. Hallway golf is a staple of summer associate activity. Partners and executives practice putting while on conference calls and work on their swings in meetings. It’s the anchor activity at conferences. Golf is the gendered engine of business. But women have been excluded from golf clubs, often explicitly in club charters, from the start of the sport. The exclusion is now implicit, and I think some men would be shocked (shocked!) to learn that the clubhouse nature of the literal clubhouse is impervious to an ‘other’. Less directly, many women with children do not have or will not commit the requisite 4 (weekend) hours to complete a course. Although my toddler would be philosophically sympathetic to Mama going out to play games with her friends, in practice he’d be less pleased and I won’t make that choice.

The double bind of an activity like golf is that if you are a woman who golfs well, you will run up against egos that don’t want to lose to a girl. As a young associate, I went out with colleagues to bowl. I’m competitive and athletic, and I won some games. But this ultimately wasn’t a victory for me: it was a loss for the guys I was up against. They lost credibility. The “losers” were heckled for months after, by partners and other colleagues who weren’t there. I didn’t get a lot of follow-up invitations to sporty activities and was told explicitly (if abashedly) the reason.

The other universal non-work work activity of lawyers is drinking. If you’re not drinking, you’re missing out. This isn’t said, of course. And it creates an impossible situation for those in recovery or in abstention. It also creates a tightrope for women, whether or not they attend. Are you not the kind of woman who wants to hang? What are you drinking? How fast are you drinking? How long are you staying? Are you too sober? Work is discussed over drinks, plans are made, bonds are forged, the passive voice prevails: this all happens at night. I suppose I could explain this to my son in terms he would understand (“it’s like having a playdate with your babysitter”) but, again, I won’t.

I didn’t get married or have a child until later in life, delaying to a point that could generously be called “pushing it.” Although this was equal parts circumstantial and intended, it was in many ways a boon to my career. I did go out to the bars and restaurants with my colleagues. When I had the opportunity to move from law firm life to startup life –in some ways out of the frying pan and into the fire – I wasn’t beholden to mortgage or tuition payments. I made the decision that was best for me. Most of my peer group similarly delayed parenthood, either to concentrate on their careers or because it’s hard to find partners you don’t wish to murder. This is a luxury with consequences[1]: for women, delaying can come with decreased fertility and consequent pricy medical intervention.

I also have a nonobvious and significant difference from many other women in the workplace who have children and home responsibilities: I have a wife who works from home. This creates a division of chores based not on gender norms, but on circumstance, skill, and competitive obstinance. Conflicts emerge from the divergent perceptions of the person working inside and the person working outside of the home, though without a gendered gloss.[2] As men have always known, wives are awesome; everyone should have one. Isn’t that the real gendered engine of industry?


[1] Murder, I’m told, also has consequences.

[2] At this point, my wife, leaning over my shoulder, informs me that she does most of our housework, which is equal parts insulting and true.