Category Archives: Women in the Workplace

As Baby Boomer Working Moms Leave the Workplace, Has Anything Really Changed?

Female lawyer working in office

BREAKING NEWS: August 1, 2015, headline in New York Times  – “Millennial Men Aren’t The Dads They Hoped to Be.”

Article Recap: Many young men initially plan to be in equal partnerships with their wives –  believing that when they become parents, both will continue to work and both will share childcare. A 50/50 life.  Then, when they become parents, they make the shocking discovery that the work world will not accommodate their idealistic notions of equality – so, facing less-than-family polices at the office, they are forced to revert to more traditional roles with Mom stepping back from her career, doing more of the care-giving and Dad doing less.

AND

BREAKING NEWS:  July 22, 2015, headline in New York Times – “More Than Their Mothers, Young Women Plan Career Pauses”

Article Recap:  The younger generation of women in the work force, millennial, define “career success…less linearly than their Moms. They are more likely than their predecessors (the generation of women who entered the business world in large numbers) to plan to scale back at times or to seek out flexible jobs. Fewer millennial women believe they can succeed in combining their careers and family life like their baby boomer Moms did (or tried to do.)

I read these two recent articles  and thought, whoa – is this really where we are now?

Despite all the gains working Moms supposedly made in the past 30 years since I was a young, full-time Mom/full-time lawyer – All of that hard work that we working Moms did to push for changes in our workplaces, so that the women who came after us could be successful? We thought we were paving the way for our daughters, but apparently not!

Do you hear sarcasm in my tone? Yes, you probably do.

We were among the first to think (idealistically) about “having it all” – We kept our given names when we got married, our husbands would be our equal partners (that part worked for me, thankfully), we would work full-time, share child care and somehow in the rosy haze of an uncertain future we would have “work-life balance” – a brand new thought in the ’80’s.

Then reality hit. Being pressured at both ends. Simultaneously feeling guilty about not spending enough time at home and not spending enough time at the office. Law firm life, I quickly learned, was not set up to accommodate working Moms. Like many corporate environments, law firm success is measured in increments of time. You are judged by the hours you put in, the more hours the better, even better if you are visible to as many people as possible while you are putting in those hours.

At my DC law firm everyone seemed to keep track of which associates were at their desks billing time like good little legal soldiers and which were not. The later you stayed at work (remember this was pre-internet so you couldn’t work from home even if you wanted to), the more diligent you appeared.

But one of the reasons I had two kids was to actually spend time with them. (silly me) So I insisted on trying to get home every night for a family dinner, followed by bath time, reading a book or two (or three or four or more) and eventually bedtime.

In order to have that family dinner, at the end of each work day I would sneak down the hall and try my best to slip into the elevator unnoticed. If I was spotted, one of my male colleagues, seeing me leave the office at the ridiculously early hour of 6:00 or 6:30 p.m., with bulging briefcase in hand, would invariably comment, just as I pushed the “down” button —

“Taking a half day?”

Ha, ha, hilarious.

These comments were not made by any of the older firm lawyers, the men in their 50’s and 60’s whose wives, for the most part, did not work outside the home, and thus could be (somewhat) excused for thinking that women should be happy homemakers and leave the tough office stuff to men.

No, the men who needled the few of us – perhaps there were four or five of us at my large firm  –  who had the nerve to try to be both lawyers and moms – were often our own-age colleagues whose wives mostly stayed at home. Our male colleagues bragged like it was a badge of honor about not seeing their kids during the work week, I leave too early and stay too late, sigh, they would say. And they wondered if we were going to stick it out for the long haul to try to make partner.  Would we drop like flies when we had our second kids? (some of us did.) Part-time work was frowned upon, the “mommy track” a stigma to be avoided and telecommuting not yet invented.

So we were expected to keep our heads down and work hard to be taken seriously. To be just like the men. And even in the 1980’s to look like them too. Yes, I was one of those women who had a closet-full of the requisite black, navy and gray, hideous skirted power-suits which I wore with decorous blouses, some of which came with big, soft, drapey bows to simulate the appearance of a man’s tie.

And we were also expected not to show off the Mom Thing too much. Not to talk about our kids and best not to have it look like we even had them. One helpful young partner actually came into to my office once and advised me to get rid of the clearly kindergartener-made pen container (gold glitter and macaroni stars) on my desk and the finger-painted drawing on the wall because it made it look like I wasn’t taking my job seriously, that I favored love of my family over love of the law.

Umm, didn’t I??

And yet when that same young partner left the office mid-way through a Thursday afternoon to catch his son’s soccer game, he was praised as a “family man.” But when a female lawyer took time off to watch her daughter in a school play, she was seen as “less committed.”

Have you ever heard the term “family woman”? Me, neither.

And oddly enough, after the computer entered our daily working and home lives in the 1990’s, things got worse, not better. Oh, good, we can now work from home turned into –> Oh, not so good, we are now expected to work from home too. To check emails when we got up and again before bed. To revise documents on Saturday afternoons. And on Sunday nights. Work time and family time blurred.

Flash forward to the 2015 headlines – yes, we have made some progress. Thankfully working Moms no longer have to wear ugly skirted-suits. We can put up as many kiddie photos in our offices as we want. Maternity leave is a given, not a request you have to make.

But still in many professions, the clock governs, hours on the job matter. Judgments made on the level of your commitment based on the quantity of your work rather than its quality. And part-time hours are still being interpreted as part-time dedication.

As a full-fledged feminist (go back to the archives, you can check the date of my original subscription to Ms. magazine!), I was and am all for choice. Women can choose to work or not to work, to stay home full-time or part-time, to take career “pauses” as they wish, to have kids or not to have kids. But then, as now, if you have a family and you want to have a job, women more than men are making the compromises.

So I think we have a problem – if this new young generation of working Moms are indeed choosing to step back from their careers solely because the workplace hasn’t evolved as much as our thinking as to gender roles has. We baby boomer working Moms did try to lead the way for you. (You’re Welcome.) But now we who blazed the work/life balance trail so it would be smoother once you got there, are starting to exit the workplace.

We did what we could. Now it is up to the next generation to push your professions to really change. It is long past time to get rid of the structural obstacles and the outdated attitudes facing women in the workplace. Are you up to the challenge?

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Careers, Law firm life, Lawyers, Men vs Women, Moms, Women, Women in the Workplace, Working Moms, Working Moms, Working Women

Find a Career that Makes Your Eyes Light Up: Advice for Recent and Not-So-Recent Graduates

bowl of candy on desk

So, is there anything about law firm life that you miss?” asked my old friend, Tom, a big deal partner at a DC law firm.

We stood chatting late in the evening at a wedding reception a few weeks ago. Guests gathered by the dessert table; I was debating between the little parfait glasses filled with chocolate mousse or the fruit tarts. Or both.

No, not really,” I responded without giving his question much thought, my mind more focused on the tiny red velvet cupcakes as another option.

Tom tried again, “Really? Nothing at all about practicing law that you miss?”

O.K., so we were having a real conversation here, not just a polite inquiry among haven’t-seen-you-for-awhile old friends.

I countered, “Well, I did like advising clients. I always liked telling people what to do.”  I laughed,  “And I liked the paycheck. So did our mortgage company.”

Pause for a moment of silence while I recalled the thrill of my first sizeable law firm paycheck.

I also liked the candy. I miss that.” I told him.

You miss what?” Tom asked, with a puzzled look on his face.

(perhaps they didn’t have as much candy at Tom’s law firm as they did at mine?)

So I explained. “You know, the candy in the bowls that people kept on their desks.”

Every afternoon around 4:00 p.m. I would take a break and do a “power walk” around our law firm’s small office, stopping for brief chats with colleagues and staff and to select my daily rewards for making it through most of the work day. Susan could always be counted on to have a seasonal assortment, candy corn, turkey-shaped chocolates or peeps. Ned specialized in mints. David shared Tootsie roll pops.

The thing is that I don’t really even like candy.

Likely, though, that Tom doesn’t rely on candy as a work-day incentive. He is the kind of lawyer who loves what he does. I did not.

I thought of my conversation with Tom the other day while reading an essay by novelist Jonathan Odell, offering excellent, if unexpected, advice for graduates titled –  “Never Get Good At What You Hate.”

Odell, who left a successful corporate career at midlife to become a writer, reasons that if you do become good at a job that you don’t much like, then you will be asked to do more of it. And the more you do of it, the more you will be asked to do, and the more unhappy you will grow.

I recognized myself in his essay. I, too was very good at a career I didn’t much like. I didn’t hate it – I just didn’t love it. And what made it harder for me was being surrounded by colleagues who really loved being lawyers.

How could I tell?

Their eyes lit up when they talked about a new project, they relished a tough legal debate, they eagerly worked those long hours –  all because they had found that love for the law that bypassed me.

My law firm colleagues, Tom and my Dad, too, (now age 92, still practicing law at a firm he founded) – – they all share that gut level passion for the law that I lacked.

Over my lawyering years it became increasingly obvious that I was getting very good at what I didn’t like to do. It made me feel like an imposter, and while I hoped that no one around me noticed – I am sure that they did.

After 33 years of working hard, becoming a partner, earning the respect of my terrific clients –  it was only through the “luck” of having a defective heart valve go seriously awry 2x, that I was involuntarily de-lawyered.  I suddenly had all the time in the world to consider what I really wanted to do – return to my childhood passion, writing that does not involve any legalese.

Which makes me (if not my mortgage company) very, very, very happy. My eyes now light up (so my husband and friends tell me) when I talk about my latest writing projects.

I offer this cautionary tale for recent and not-so-recent graduates to ponder. And a question: how can you possibly know at age 22 or 25 – or at 58 or 62 what you will really like to do if you haven’t had the chance to do it?

Try this test with a few close friends. Let them sit in front of you. Then tell them about a few different work/life paths you’ve been considering.

Which one will make the work day go so fast that you won’t need candy as a mid-afternoon reward?

Which one will make your eyes light up?

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1st Job, Adult Kids, Baby Boomers, Careers, College, friendship, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, New Grad, Semi-Retired, Women in the Workplace

Was it Something I Said? – – Job Rejection at a “Certain Age”

iStock_000044753522Large  doors

Rejection? Does it get easier to handle when you are older?

Rejection is something to learn from, I would tell my kids when one didn’t get the part he wanted in a school play or the other was not invited to a sleep-over.

You learn that “life is unfair” (my Dad’s favorite phrase) or “when one door closes, another opens” (my Mom’s more optimistic approach) or “don’t take it personally” (my husband’s soothing words of choice.)

I kept these phrases in mind when I opened my email last Friday to read:

Thank you for your time on Wednesday. There were a number of applicants for this opening. (Name of employer) regrets that we are unable to offer you the position of (job title) at this time. We wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

OUCH!

A friend told me a few weeks ago that a well-regarded, college planning company was looking to fill a part-time, seasonal position. I’m not looking for a job, I told her. But this ad, for a college essay specialist, has your name on it, Nancy, my friend insisted. You have the qualifications, you should apply. So I did.

To prep for my interview, I studied the Common Application college essay prompts for next Fall’s admission season. High school seniors using the Common App will write an essay, up to 650 words, on one of five topics. Here’s Topic #2:

 

 “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

How ironic is it that when I applied for a position to assist high school students in brainstorming, writing (their words, not mine!) and editing their essays that I was the one to experience failure?

It could have been something I said or didn’t say. Perhaps it was how I looked? Was I over-qualified? Under-qualified? Not a good fit?

I don’t know why I wasn’t chosen but I can, in up to 650 words, write about it.

1. “Recount an incident when you experienced failure.”

The last time I had a job interview was 23 years ago. Last week my interviewers were a great deal younger and there were two of them in one room. One sat directly in front of me, the other to my left, requiring a great deal of head swiveling. Thought I did well on that. One seemed friendlier, one a bit cooler. I answered their questions, perhaps too candidly, as is my nature. And then to a separate room to take a written test. I like tests, thought that part went well, too.

But I admit, as I left their building, I did not have that warm fuzzy (they liked me! they really liked me!) feeling.  I wrote a nice thank you note. Waited a day. Then the “regrets” email came.

2. “How did it affect me?”

I was surprised, not shocked, but I was upset. Got that pit in the stomach sick feeling. I called my husband who told me not to “take it personally.” Completely unhelpful advice. (Apologies here to my kids for ever saying that to you.) OF COURSE,  I TOOK IT PERSONALLY. They rejected me. That is about as personal as it gets. We do not want you. You may think you were right for the job. We don’t agree. Guess who wins.

I emailed a few friends who were rooting for me. More reassurance; I started to calm down. My stomach returned to its normal state (hunger.) It was late afternoon; I still had research to do for an article I’m writing on college mental health and revisions to make to an agreement I’m drafting for a non-profit board.

Rejection affected me – but not for long. Move on, things to do, next project, please.

3. “What did I learn from the experience?”

I don’t think I learned anything new. When I was younger, I tasted failure often enough. This time, even though I bounced back more quickly, failure had that same bitter taste.

In my 3rd year of law school, when I was hunting for my first job, I had a series of interviews at a small DC law firm that I really wanted to join. I eagerly waited to hear from them. Email had yet to be invented so it was a letter in the mail that gave me the bad news resulting in that same pit in my stomach sick feeling.

The next day I called one of the lawyers at the firm, an older partner who I seemed to connect with during our 20 minute interview, and asked him why I didn’t get the job. He was surprisingly candid. He told me  – “We all thought you had spunk, but your grades didn’t measure up.”

True. My college and grad school grades had been excellent, but my law school grades were less than stellar. And it was also true that I had spunk. Still do.

Yes, being older brings perspective, resilience, maybe even a bit of wisdom. But no getting past it, failure still hurts whatever your age.

What then did I learn from my recent brush with the world of employment?

That sometimes spunk isn’t enough, that your qualifications can get you in the door but now, as then, sometimes life is unfair (you’re right, Dad.) But when one door closes, another door opens. (you were right, Mom.) I’m going to walk through that open door now.

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Careers, College, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, Parenting, Second Careers, Women, Women in the Workplace, Writing