Friday, September 9, 2011

Can we teach old dogs, new tricks?

Last weekend, I attended the wedding of a very good friend and classmate. My classmate is from a very liberal, socially aware, family and community. Many of the attendees were business people and, incidentally, many were lawyers. During the ceremony, I was sitting a couple of seats down from another one of the classmates. She is undoubtedly one of the most successful students in our year, by law school standards. She is ranked top of the class, already employed after graduation, and currently clerking for the highest court (and highest justice) in the state.

My female classmate was sitting next to an older gentleman. He was friendly and talkative as we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, and turned to her to discuss her connection to the couple. When she explained that we all went to law school together, he was delighted to tell her that he, too, was a lawyer. He then went on to tell her, quite bluntly, that he hated working with female lawyers in negotiations. He would never hire one, because women negotiators only “want what they want” and refuse to compromise. He preferred working for men, because they “get things done” and can agree on a deal much more quickly. He prefaced his statement with “no offense, but....”

She retold me the story at the cocktail hour and I was offended for her. I was also dumbstruck by the gentleman’s foolishness. If only he knew my classmate’s accolades, right? And that brought me to the question: “Can we teach old dogs, new tricks?”

In Chapter 3 of Martha Chamallas’s, Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory, she includes a section entitled “Equal Access to Jobs and Education.” The section discusses what Chamallas considers to be the “practical impact” of equality thinking. She applauds this era for giving women the opportunity to enter male dominated professions and for providing greater access to higher education. She credits the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in their efforts to regulate employers’ discriminatory practices and eventually, challenging existing protective labor laws, which limited the types of tasks and hours female employees could work. Chamallas also points to this era as a time in which female enrollment in graduate schools began to surge. She attributes this achievement to both the “loosening of institutional resistance” and the women’s movement into areas of academia traditionally populated by males.

There are two things that caught me about this section. First, Chamallas refers to the advancements in equal employment and higher education both as challenges to traditional stereotypes. The EEOC sought to eliminate employment discrimination by stopping employers from stereotype-based hiring practices. Women enrolling in higher education rejected the stereotype beliefs that women were “psychologically unsuited” for these areas of academia. Second, the era that Chamallas applauds is the 1970s.

So why is it that in 2011, are we still battling stereotypes? This isn't a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. This is a matter of teaching an old dog, an OLD trick. If what Chamallas writes about the 1970s is true, the gentleman at the wedding should have learned to ignore stereotypes over forty years ago. It brings me to a question that I believe will be a major focus of my feminist legal theory education: if female advancements cannot be made solely by changes in the law, how do we change society’s stereotypes as well? How do we teach old dogs?


S said...

KayZee, you raise a great question that I (unsurprisingly) cannot answer.

However, I find it interesting the gentleman felt comfortable and compelled to refocus their conversation's pleasantries on why he hates working with women attorneys in negotiations.

First, to give a long list of (what he believes to be) negative characteristics he has identified as belonging to an entire class to a very member of that class has to reflect some level of comfort. Or it just shows he has cajones. What quality about this student made him comfortable with being that insensitive? Is it because the student is a female? Or perhaps it is because she is, I am assuming, young? Maybe it has to do with her being a student and not a practitioner? I suspect it is a combination of all three. As a young individual who has not yet begun to practice (inexperienced), he may have thought that she could not take his comments personally. Her gender may also have played a role. He may have felt that as a female she would understand (from personal experience?) what he meant when stating that women negotiators "want what they want” and refuse to compromise. Sadly, he may have just been oblivious to his insensitivity. I suspect, though, that it was the intersectionality of all three qualities (young, female, student) that made him comfortable insulting a woman to her face.

Also, what compelled him to change the conversation? Did the intersectionality of this student's qualities present to him a rare opportunity to complain about something that irritates him?

Lastly, I would like to comment on your statement: "If what Chamallas writes about the 1970s is true, the gentleman at the wedding should have learned to ignore stereotypes over forty years ago. " You noted that Chammallas believes that women's entrance in the work force and institutions of high education reflected "challenges to traditional stereotypes." Why then is this gentleman still articulating stereotypes? It may be because he failed to place himself in spaces that continued to break down gendered stereotypes. It is going to take more than just laws to break down traditional notions of gender. As discussed in class the other day, constant or continuous culture also plays a large role. Although he lives in a culture where stereotypes are being challenged, if his home life, friends, and other spaces he elects to spend his time in embraces stereotypes, then what good will the law do? The law will only force him to protect himself from liability by complying with the bare minimum of what is expected of him (we would hope).

Megan said...

Interesting. I recently went to a job interview where I received similar feedback from an interviewer who expressed frustration with hard-charging female associates who feel the need to "out-macho" their male colleagues. This was in answer to my question about work-life balance. His "answer" was that the imbalance was driven by females having to prove themselves by pushing for longer working hours. I, like your friend, failed to stand up for myself and my sisters in the profession. Maybe we make it to easy and "comfortable" (as S puts it) for people (men) to casually make somewhat denigrating and definitely inaccurate, sweeping remarks about women. Maybe we need to make situations like that more uncomfortable...

hanestagless said...

I’m taken aback that this lawyer would even have this conversation, regardless of whether he believed what he was saying. Getting past that, I can’t help but notice that the stereotype he used is so contradictory to past stereotypes used to deny women entry into the workplace, specifically the legal profession.

In Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1872) (Bradley, J., concurring), Justice Bradley joined with the majority in denying a woman’s application to the Illinois State Bar. He stated, “[t]he natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” I assume Justice Bradley feels that the legal profession is one of those which a woman’s “timidity and delicacy” is unfit.

This lawyer’s generalization that women negotiators refuse to compromise seems completely opposite to Justice Bradley’s sentiment on women lawyers. This seems to suggest that the lawyer is perpetuating the systematic discrimination against women in the legal profession. Just like Justice Bradley, it appears that he’d rather deny women entry into the profession, then tries to justify his choice on a prevailing stereotype. The tragedy is that I believe such misogyny can’t be changed. Even if you shatter a stereotype, another one will replace it, and the “old dogs” will use it to continue their misogyny.