A fourth grader in Raleigh, NC named Sophie recently wrote me a letter about a project she is working on for her writing class. She chose to write about “Women Working in Male-Dominated Careers” and asked me if I would provide insight and thoughts as a woman lawyer.
Since my top favorite things — writing, lawyering and running — are so intertwined in my life, I thought this “Chasing Helen” forum was an appropriate place for me to share my response to Sophie. Here’s what I wrote:
I’m thrilled and honored that you asked me to participate in your project, “Women Working in Male-Dominated Careers,” and that this is a subject about which you are passionate. You go girl!
After reflecting on your letter, I decided the best thing I can do is share my own experience. In order to do that, I have to start from the beginning.
Growing up, I was surrounded by strong female role models. My mother worked as a humanities teacher at the Community College in Goldsboro, NC and has led a life of service in her local community and throughout the state. She taught me how to write well and how to speak to a room full of people. She encouraged me to embrace my loud voice and big personality.
My grandmother, Louise (Sitti) and her sister Agnes (Aggie), whose parents immigrated to America from Lebanon around 1915, both worked full time for 30 years at their Uncle Neil Joseph’s Women’s Clothing Store. And they raised their families. They were part of the Lebanese-American women in eastern North Carolina. This group of women were a force to be reckoned with. They could do anything. They could single handedly cook a meal for 40 people in one morning, entertain all day, clean up the kitchen and still have time for a cup of coffee and a few stories around the kitchen table. They raised their families, managed the household and many of them worked outside of the home. Their strength, warmth and dedication are not lost on me.
My dad is one of four brothers, and our family is tight. The men in my life (father, brothers, uncles and cousins) are good men and have set the bar very high.
I was well into my twenties and practicing law before I experienced gender bias for the first time. But man oh man, when I did, it hit me square in the face.
During my first year as a lawyer, I was the associate attorney for the Department of Social Services, trying to run the child support courtroom. Quickly, I realized that I was being treated differently than my male boss. People interrupted me, they judged me, and some were not afraid to tell me what they thought of my looks. So inappropriate. Every time, I laughed and brushed it off. But when I went home at night, I ran through a dozen ways I could have responded differently to let those men know what they said or did was NOT okay.
In a male dominated profession, women are judged by what we wear, how we do our hair, the tone of our voices, what we say and how we say it. (And make no mistake about it — sometimes the harshest feedback comes from other women.) Too often, women’s ideas are interrupted or ignored, only to be used by a male counterpart minutes later and taken as an original idea of his own. It’s easy to feel like we have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard just to be heard.
Take heart, Sophie. You will learn, as I did, that many strong women have come before us. These women stand out in a crowd. They are known as “trail blazers.” With their smarts, integrity, passion and determination, they have cleared a path for all the women who follow. I had to find my trail blazers. And you know what?! I found them! I found them by the dozens!!
Just this past week, I attended a retreat with over 30 women trial lawyers from across the state of North Carolina. Women of all ages who help and represent individuals in civil and criminal courts. I looked around the room and felt proud. Proud to be among the ranks of such powerful and accomplished attorneys. I felt inspired and excited to learn from them. I know this group will be with me throughout my career.
At the retreat, I learned of a term called “amplification.” Have you heard of it? When a woman makes a good point, another woman will repeat it and give credit to the author. Amplification is a concept used by women staffers in President Obama’s white house. The men in the room started to recognize the contributions. With the women in it together, the men couldn’t claim the ideas for their own. My group of women trial lawyers decided we would adopt this concept and practice it from the courtroom to the boardroom and everywhere in between.
There will always be men (and women) who will try to tell you that you are “too nice” or “too loud” or “not smart enough” or “not good enough.” Forget them.
Find the women who make you say, “I want to be like her.”
Looking back, I’ve had mostly male bosses. I learned from them and most gave me an opportunity to shine. For that, I’m so grateful. But just this past month, I joined the law firm Copeley, Johnson & Groninger. All three of my bosses are women. Strong, smart, passionate women. I want to be like them.
There are trail blazing women everywhere I turn. My sister-in-law is the only female equity partner in the Raleigh office of her international law firm. She made partner while having two children. I’ve been taking notes from her for years. Outside of practicing law, I’m an avid runner. This year, I joined a national group of women runners called Oiselle Volee. The Charlotte “birds” meet up for a run and coffee once a month. We just got together this past Sunday. So, I went from a group of powerful, inspiring women lawyers to a group of powerful, inspiring women runners.
Find the women, Sophie.
Peggy Abrams, a lawyer who makes me say “I want to be like her,” gave us the following advice about How to Navigate a Male Dominated World:
- Be yourself
- Be honest and have the utmost integrity (that is yours and only you can take that away)
- Be kind, respectful, professional
- Be a good listener
- Keep your eye on the prize (don’t sweat the small stuff)
I will add two more to this list:
6. Surround yourself with women (and men) who inspire you to work hard and be the best version of yourself. (Don’t forget the good guys out there. Men are not the enemy. Find the good men.)
7. Pay it forward. Be like the women who came ahead of you and lead the way.
Sophie, I hope that this project inspires you to continue working hard in school so that you can have the career of your dreams. We are both fortunate. Incredible women have blazed the trail for us. But I believe that your generation is going to light the trail on fire. Go forward and represent women well.
See you out there!