by Suzannah Gilman
When I started my first job out of law school, I was nearing forty— much older than the firm’s other new hires. I had all the enthusiasm of my fellow law school graduates plus a little something extra: life experience. I’d been married for 19 years and I had one child starting college, two in high school, and one in middle school. I’d been navigating the adult world since most other first year attorneys were in first grade. The partner I worked under in the commercial real estate section, a woman who made a career change to law when she was in her forties, understood that advantage.
I’d only been with the firm a couple of months when she surprised me with her level of confidence in me. Minutes before we were to jointly conduct a due diligence meeting on the latest multi-million dollar real estate venture of one of our steady clients, she told me that she was not going upstairs to the conference room and that instead, I would handle the matter alone. I won’t lie: I was nervous at first.
In the conference room I greeted our clients and the seller’s representatives, all men in suits. Wearing my own suit and looking down the long table, out the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered an expansive view from downtown Orlando across east Orange County toward the Space Coast on the horizon, I was proud to be sitting there.
In an hour or two, we’d have all the details wrapped up so the deal could close on time. I’d worked on every aspect of the purchase from drafting the sales contract to reviewing surveys and ensuring zoning allowed our clients’ intended purpose for the property, so I knew what to do. But the men were chatting—gabbing would be more like it—as purposelessly as I’d ever heard anyone before any meeting, from the Cub Scout Pack Committee to the PTA board to the undergrads in the English honor society– groups I’m sure they’d look down on and snigger at because of their blathering. Glancing at the clock, I finally interrupted them. “Okay, there will be enough time for that later. Let’s get down to business,” I said.
The men turned to me all at once, clearly shocked by my audacity. They hushed, but then exchanged looks with one another as if to say, “What a bitch.”
Yes, what a bitch.
Because I am capable, confident, and can easily and competently take charge? Because I wouldn’t sit with my ankles crossed demurely and wait until they had said every little nothing that occurred to them? Because they were being billed for my time in increments of 6 minutes and I was saving them money by starting the meeting?
Because I was doing my job?
Because in their eyes, “all” I am is a woman.
What I regret about that day is that I let those men make me question myself. Had I been rude? Did I start off my first solo meeting on the wrong foot? The partner I worked under was notoriously brusque and crusty; had I already started emulating her? (Of course, the answer was no.) Even as we successfully addressed every item on the agenda, I was questioning whether I was doing a good job. Because clearly, I’d done something to offend those men. I wish I’d known then what I know now: that I offended them simply by being a woman. (Well, a woman who does not speak only when spoken to.)
I wonder if those men would still see me the same way if that meeting were held now, nine years later, or have they joined the 21st Century and wised up?
Just in case they’re still operating at a deficit, I’ll offer them this warning:
There are a lot of us bitches at work out there. Govern yourselves accordingly.
Categories: Suzannah's Voice