Walking into a Glass Wall
This year’s NAPABA convention theme was “Reaching Monumental Heights.” Throughout the three-day marathon of CLE sessions, award ceremonies and networking events, we were inspired by living examples of those that have reached monumental heights in various areas of the law: government, in-house, Biglaw, the judiciary.
Senator Mazie Hirono spoke about being a first generation immigrant, her struggles integrating in a new society and her ultimate triumph of being elected as the first woman Senator of Asian descent. She expressed her pride in being a part of a country that gave immigrants like herself the opportunity to rise to one of the highest offices a public official can serve and urged us to keep striving for perfection.
Justice Sotomayor related stories of her humble beginnings in the Bronx, raised by a single mother who sacrificed everything so that her daughter could strive for monumental heights. And when an appointment for the highest judicial office was before Justice Sotomayor, she recalled her mother’s admonition about her duty to fellow minorities: “When you’re a person of color, you don’t have a choice. You have an obligation to go as far as you can, to take your career as high as you can, to lead and lift your community.” Justice Sotomayor then urged us to draw strength from where we come, to anchor ourselves to our beginnings and, informed and enlightened by our roots, to reach for the greatest heights in our careers.
An immigrant, a woman, and a person of color, I rose to my feet at the end of these speeches, empowered and invigorated, ready to conquer the upcoming challenges in the next stage of my own budding career. Wow, I thought, why had I waited so long to get involved in minority organizations?
And then it happened. I walked into the glass wall. He was general counsel at some big-name company. “Excuse me, are you Ms. America?” He asked. “No, I am a litigator at [insert law firm here],” I answered matter-of-factly. “Well, I bet you’ve never lost a case,” he persisted, as he held the handshake a few seconds too long. Of course I have, but I wasn’t going to get into it. “Meet us in the backroom at Lima. Tell them you’re with [insert whatever his sleazy name was].” I pulled my hand away. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” I said as I quickly made my exit.
Moments later, I ran into another GC who I’d heard speak on a panel. He, too, told a story of struggles as an immigrant and a slow but steady rise. I shook his hand and congratulated him on an inspiring message. “What do I have to do to work with someone as stunning as you?” was his reply.
I shook it off and moved on to network with others. I was not going to let a couple of inappropriate comments stop me from meeting great people and making connections. But something in my gut won’t let me let these episodes go.
In an event geared at empowering minorities and encouraging each other to reach monumental heights, and in an organization that fights to achieve equality for women, what place did comments like these have? I am sure I’m not the only one who has encountered this. I wasn’t the first and I know, unfortunately, that I won’t be the last. Is this just the norm? Do women attend these conventions expecting to be objectified and suck it up for the sake of networking?
If so, then what is the point? What is the point of telling us we can break through the glass ceiling if everywhere we turn, there is a glass wall in our way? What is the point of mentoring and sponsorship, of promoting women, if in the end, we only tear them down by reducing them to eye candy? How dare you call yourself a leader of this organization when you continually push the very members this organization is meant to promote down a rung on the ladder with each chauvinist comment?
This isn’t about feminism and I am not another angry woman who can’t take a compliment. But I’ve been raised to believe that there is a time and place for everything. I’ve taken care to act and appear professional at all times. I made sure my dress was by no means revealing and I insisted on buying my own drinks at the cash bar. We are, after all, at a legal convention, not a club (and as you’ll notice, I gave you no impression that I will be joining you at the backroom of some club so that you can further blur the lines of professionalism in the haze of loud music and alcohol). I’ve done my part. Men, please do yours. Nowhere during a professional networking event would a woman approach a man and say, “Are you a Chippendales dancer?”
In a recent interview, when asked about her favorite designers, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shot back, “Would you ask a man that question?”
Men of the legal profession, I hold you to a higher standard. I ask you, before you speak, to ask yourselves, “would you say that to a man?”
Only when you stop being the glass walls in our paths can we truly break through the glass ceiling.