On being the girl in the boy’s club

I’m not prone to writing thought-provoking society-examining posts (ironic being that I was a sociology major in college), so bear with me if I flounder a bit. Something has been on my mind all day and I want to work it out a bit, on paper (..screen?).

I don’t talk about my job much, but I’ve mentioned that I’m a lawyer. Specifically, a litigator. That means that probably 99% of what I do is centered around getting a case ready for trial or settlement.

I had a meeting in court yesterday morning. I went alone. It was extremely typical, and it went like this:

I arrive and find two lawyers representing one of our opposing parties already waiting. They are both male, one in his late 50s, one in his 30s (clearly the associate helper of the older gentlemen). We wait for the other attorneys to arrive and they do, one each for two other parties. They are both male, and both, I’m guessing, in their 40s. When the judge came in, he was also male, I’d guess also in his 40s.

Pleasantries begin. There is talk of some baseball coach who got suspended for saying something about Cuba, and some other baseball coach (I think?) who got fired because he lied about having a mistress and hiring her or something? Honestly I had heard about these both in passing from B the day before, but I didn’t have any details sufficient to contribute to the conversation in an intelligent way.

The meeting begins. For about an hour we talk business and it goes as well as it was going to, and everyone is perfectly cordial. And then we wrap up and the pleasantries begin again.

One of the attorneys asks the judge about a mural on the wall of the courthouse which leads to a discussion of the French and Indian war. Everyone in the room seems to have a firm grounding in American history and I’m left standing there nodding along— I know nothing about that war. The conversation then turns to the building, and the architecture, and who built it. Again, I don’t know anything about architecture so I nod along.

Finally, mercifully, the men start to file out and I head to the bathroom so I can separate myself from the pack and avoid continued awkward conversation as we all walk out to our cars.

As I said, this is extremely typical. Most meetings begin and end with chit-chat. Lawyering is a social business and lawyers tend to like to at least pretend we’re friends, before we rip each other apart in court. The problem is, the lawyers I come into contact with are, almost exclusively, older men. They have more in common with my father than they do with me.

It isn’t that I don’t want to be social with them, or that I don’t try, it is simply that I never have any idea what the hell anyone else is talking about. My hobbies mostly include reading trashy books, the internet, tv, baking, crafting, and decorating. I do keep up on the news and politics, but out of courtesy to all involved politics is generally off-limits for these sorts of meetings because it’s a bit too “real” for a casual conversation. Which leaves? Sports. Architecture. Stock Market. Seriously— that’s what these meetings always devolve into. And I’m always left standing/sitting there awkwardly. Trying to find that elusive balance between nodding enough that I don’t look bored and yet not so vigorously that they ask my opinion.

Quite frankly, it sucks. It’s really hard being the only woman, ever. It’s also really hard being the youngest person in the room, always. The youngest bit is easily enough explained— I work for a firm small enough that I must, out of necessity, do a lot of actual lawyering. Most firms, however, don’t let litigators actually do a lot of the heavy lifting in a case until they have more experience (and thus are older), than me.

But the lack of women in this industry has been pretty shocking to me. Particularly because that was not the case at all in law school. Thinking back, it seems to me that the class was pretty evenly split between men and women. A few quick google searches confirm that the number of female law school grads is about equal to men.

So why is it that in my fourth year of litigation, I can think of a grand total of four female attorneys I’ve dealt with and the number of men is well beyond counting (I’d guess over a hundred?)? I googled around a bit to see if I could find any statistics on the number of male vs. female litigators, and wasn’t able to find anything nationwide. One study in New York, however, shows that women make up just about 12% of litigators.

Is it that women gravitate towards non-litigation jobs? Those that aren’t quite so confrontational on a daily basis?

Is it that women don’t stay in the practice of law at the same rate as men? (i.e. they may graduate as lawyers but perhaps switch careers or decide to stay home?)

Is it that because most litigators are in their late 30s-60s, the number of men and women graduating from law school might have an effect (if say, 20 years ago the number of women graduating law school was far lower then for men)?

I really don’t know. Maybe all of the above, to some extent? The article above suggests that a part of the problem is that women simply don’t bring in the same number of clients as men. Women don’t “shmooze.”

I can relate– I suck at shmoozing!

But I also think that women on the whole are at a disadvantage when it comes to forming the types of relationships that help make a successful career. If the fact of the situation is that almost all of your interactions are with men, how can we be expected to connect on the same level as men?

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about the kind of “boys club” mentality propagated by men who don’t want to see women succeed. With the exception of one opposing counsel (who I suspect is just an ass to everyone, regardless of gender), I’ve experienced nothing but cordial, if not friendly, behavior from everyone I encounter. But the fact remains, I’m different. I can’t shoot the shit about the game last night, because I didn’t watch it. And I have no interest in architecture. That’s how life goes. I am going to have a lot more in common with a 20-something woman than I am with a 50-something man.

So where does that leave us, as women?

I think, perhaps, it just means we have to work harder. When I got home from my meeting and told B about my day, I told him that the next time I have a meeting I might have to watch sports center with him the night before. And I was only half kidding. It seems a bit silly to me to try to force interests I don’t have in an effort to “fit in,” but I’m not sure that standing out is going to be helpful to me in the long term. And admittedly, I could make a bigger effort to connect with other female attorneys. I’m certain that there are networking events for women lawyers, perhaps even women litigators, in my area. I’ve just not cared enough to attend them. While those women might not be people I come into contact with in my practice, perhaps I need to look outside of those I regularly come into contact with for networking opportunities.

I’m not really sure where I was going with this, except that I felt like it was something that needs to be said. I am in a male dominated industry– and I didn’t know it was going to be like that.

Does anyone else work in a male-domintated field? How have you found ways to cope?

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4 thoughts on “On being the girl in the boy’s club

  1. Finance is a male dominated field, so 99% of our clients are men. However, we do have a good number of female lawyers (and my team is half women), so I don’t run into the same problem you do. However, I think one reason you don’t deal with a lot of women is that it is less likely that women STAY in the practice of law because it is so hard to practice law when you are a mother. I know law school is 50/50, and maybe even young associates at firms are closer to 50/50, but there is still a REALLY small number of female parters out there I think. Sort of sad…
    Anyhow, just wanted to point out the self-selecting of women to leave law as a possible point…

  2. Hey! I totally know what you’re talking about. I had that problem for years as I trailed along with my old man boss to court. He knew everyone, conversed with everyone, while I just stood there smiling. Pretty sure a lot of people thought I was his assistant.

    Honestly, I started watching baseball. I did that just to keep up with an all-male office (and one of the teams here was having a phenomenal year, which made it more interesting). And Chicago I such a big sports town that it is easy enough to say, hey , Cubs or Sox? As much as it sucks, it can be a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation.

    But I’m surprised, actually, that you don’t come across more women. There are a lot of young female litigators in Chicago, so that is not as much a problem for me. But it is true that at the more important events, it does tend to be mostly older males. But sometimes the women can be harder to talk to, I find. I think women in these types of careers struggle with trying to come across as a tough litigator while still being the nice, warm person they were raised to be. I think it’s getting better, but unfortunately, a lot of women litigators can just be straight bitchy, probably in an effort to not be seen as a doormat.

    Anyway, good luck! As much as I hate to say it, my best advice is just to watch baseball!

  3. All of the top level executives at my company are males. We have two female consultants that I work with on a regular basis, but my boss, my boss’ boss and my boss’ boss’ boss (the owner of the company) are all males.

    The major event that my company does on an annual basis is a golf tournament. Approximately 98% of the participants from my company are males (although it is open to anybody), and approximately 98% of the reps that we are schmoozing are male.

    It sucks that I would love to take part in the big company events, but have literally never held a “real” golf club in my life. I have jokingly suggested that they hold a mini-golf version as well, because I could totally kick some ass at that.

    It sucks, and I’m with ya, girl. šŸ˜¦

  4. @shanderson- i think you’re right that a lot of women probably don’t WANT to be litigators or don’t stay litigators.

    @jem1896- zomg people think I’m my boss’ assistant sometimes too. Not cool. lol. I think it is a hard balance for women litigators to be both tough and nice, I’m not sure why it isn’t as hard for men but I totally agree.

    @anna- haha oh golf. Thats one of those things I heard about in college but I actually have not experienced. I do feel like that is probably how a lot of business is done amongst business men (as opposed to lawyers) though. My dad’s cousin is a very successful business woman and she learned golf specifically so she could participate in those types of events and I feel like it served her well… but the last time I went to the driving range I managed to hit myself in the leg with my own golf ball and got into a fight with B… so probably not in my future. haha.

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