When asked what words best describe the firm’s attorneys, our leadership team quickly used the phrase, “Badass Gladiators.” This term is perhaps a bit stronger than those encouraged to take root in our public descriptions of our firm, including: tenacious, fearless, advocates, committed, creative problem-solvers. Candidly, most of us in the practice are admittedly a bit politically incorrect so to be branded with the description is, in a way, a badge of honor.
But, as we approach Sodoma Law’s Tenth Anniversary (and almost two decades of practicing law for me), I have to ask myself – have we always been badass gladiators? In my experience, as women in the legal field, we sometimes downplay our own professional journeys, but each of us fought for that title – much like the Amazon Warriors of lore. Whether it was facing domestic violence, financial hardship or painstaking divorce, many of us arrived with sweat still on our brows. Amidst the #MeToo campaign that is flooding our social media, it’s hard not to reflect on my own story and why it should, or shouldn’t, matter.
Aside from being raised in a small town where “norms” may not match perception, I grew up in a family with all boys and a traditional father. Without any judgment, when I was choosing my professional career, I was encouraged to seek roles that were typically held by women. I silently questioned it but openly ignored it – as that was my “normal” and challenging authority was not part of my repertoire. In hindsight, I am not even sure I realized the stereotype that had been cast on me. I only recognized my determination and that I was the only person who would get in my way. The decisions were mine to make and the consequences would be my lessons to learn.
Now, as I lead an established law practice with a team of the most committed badass and bravest, I am often asked whether there were any hurdles that I had to jump because I am a woman. I have struggled to respond because I did not recognize my challenges in relation to my gender – only that the hurdles I faced were MINE, a part of my journey. Like many of those whose outpouring of harassment experiences, both current and from years past, make up the #MeToo movement, there were times I know I pushed aside the very idea of having been wronged, in order to forge ahead. Did I experience sexual harassment? Did I even know it was sexual harassment?
Looking back, I know there were blatant moments of sexual harassment. As a teenager, I recall my boss trying to kiss me in the parking lot when he offered to walk me to my car. Did I report it? Of course not. I would have lost my job. I thought that I asked for it because I was too nice to him. During the course of my legal career, I have been in business meetings where I was told that if I wore a dress or allowed the decision maker to place his hand on my thigh, I would likely get what I want in the deal. (Spoiler Alert: I did not allow it, but I got what I wanted).
But, what about the moments that were not so blatant? The ones I did not even recognize as relevant. I am appalled to hear the stories that are being shared on the major networks – Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and have we already forgotten about Bill O’Reilly? And, most recently, the allegations that are against Charlotte, North Carolina’s very own Jerry Richardson? Sadly, we all know that this is only a short list of big players. While it easier to find humor in these stories, (who could forget Tom Brady on Saturday Night Live?), I am hopeful that conversations about sexual harassment lead the public conversation to address the “umbrella” issue of equality. There is no question that we have a long way to go in leveling the playing field for men and women.
Not that long ago, I was standing in my own office with two male attorneys who were onsite for a meeting. One of the attorneys was considering opening a solo practice and leaving his firm. The other attorney was content in his big law firm. There, the three of us stood…face to face when the question came: “I am thinking of opening a law practice. Can you tell me the pros and cons of making that happen?” But, interestingly, the question was not directed at me. It was directed at the man who had never done it. The man who had been with his big firm for many years and would never have been able to answer the question. The man without the experience. Standing in my office, of the law firm I had built and currently run, I was overlooked. The two of them turned towards each other and removed me from the conversation. It was amusing, but unfortunately just another example of gender exclusion.
We can and should share these stories and make them part of the conversation – in our homes, in our work and at the dinner table with friends. Most are not even aware of the impact their actions and words make on others particularly if the perception was that those behaviors were acceptable or without consequences. I was not impacted by the words of my colleagues, but others may have been. Not only do we need to listen to each other, but we also need to teach our children differently. We can still tell little girls that their hair bows are beautiful and little boys that they can run really fast – but tell them those things AFTER you compliment their quick wit
Sexual harassment continues to be part of today’s workplace, but with the #MeToo movement, and the consequences being faced by high-profile individuals, we have an opportunity to change behavior, perception, thoughts and beliefs. There is no time like the present to make this happen. Acknowledge your own story, learn from it, and then focus on how to avoid repeating those lessons for those that follow.