Monday, September 1, 2008

Women at work

Yes, former fem legal theory students, that us. OK, well, it is most of us; a few of you are men at work, but you should nevertheless read this!

Maybe by now you've seen this super-popular item in the New York Times. I first noticed it on Saturday, in the "Jobs" section in a series called "Preoccupations." It's written by 26-year-old Hannah Seligman, and the title is "Girl Power at School, Not at the Office."

I'll excerpt the closing quote first. It's from Myra Smart, a retired senior faculty member of the Harvard School of Business, who studies female entrepreneurs: "“By and large women believe that the workplace is a meritocracy, and it isn’t.”

To that I say, "duh." But I don't mean to imply that I've known this all along. I've spent the last decade learning it. Yes, it has taken me into my 40s! It took me that long because I lucked out in most of my jobs until then. By that I mean that in prior jobs, what looked like my succeeding in a meritocracy was probably my good luck, and the fact I was seen with extra value because I didn't have a family to distract me. I was able to look the part of the ideal worker -- and, in fact, to be one. I could work late every night and be put on an airplane at a moment' s notice.

But I've digressed. Let me get back to the gist of Ms. Seligson's piece. She characterizes the college classroom as egalitarian, and she contrasts how she and her female peers were empowered in college, "easily ascend[ing] to school leadership positions and prestigious internships," with their workplace experiences a short time later. Seligson writes of the "realization that the knowledge and skills acquired in school don’t always translate at the office," noting that gender dynamics are an aspect of the challenge.

I don't know if law school leaves women students unprepared for the realities of the work world in the way that Seligson suggests college does. Female graduates who worked before entering law school may already be switched on to some of the differences Seligson highlights. Of course, there is also plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that the law school classroom is not egalitarian. (See my article here, collecting sources). This may mean that women students leave law school with less confidence than when they entered.

Whatever state female law grads are in when they enter the work world, Seligson offers some pretty good advice, I think. She suggests subtle cultivation of mentors and networking; solicitation of feedback; self-promotion; risk taking; and asking for raises -- among other strategies.

Actually, I don't think the solutions are as easy and straight-forward as Seligson suggests-- especially not the asking for a raise part. What Seligson doesn't mention is that asking for more money not only doesn't always work, it can be used to portray us prima donnas, overly-ambitious, etc. Oh the stories I could tell . . .

Seligson also addresses the issue of women undermining women in the workplace. I know it happens, but I'm happy to say it has not happened to me as much as "lore" and Ms. Seligson's story suggests. In short, my advice is not to be preoccupied by the possibility.

In any event, Seligson gives us a lot of good food for thought. I especially want to emphasize the mentoring point and the networking point. I met a King Hall alum recently (at a kids' birthday party! It's fun to run into them in unexpected places) who was very focused on these in relation to each other. She is a partner in a smallish Sacramento law firm, and she said we need to mentor students to understand the need for networking and how to do it.

Of course, one way for us to get and stay networked is through this blog. So come on, alums . . . chime in. Tell your own work stories -- under cover of a pseudonym if necessary!

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