By Peg Johnston • October 26, 2007•Other Career Issues
Law.com had a great article yesterday about one female firm partner's recipe for success. (Thanks to www.PTlawmom.com for the tip.) The article was refreshing to me because this particular woman, Mercedes Meyer, has revealed that her secret to success in BigLaw is not trying to get the firm to conform to her needs as a female professional but by trying to conform herself to some of the male-ness of the practice.
I was intrigued right from the start because Ms. Meyer credits a book that I've just recently set out to read as a turning point in her professional life:
Her eyes were opened a few years ago, Meyer says, when she read Lois Frankel's "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers."
"I had an 'a-ha' moment," she says.
She says that she took the advice found in that book as well as some advice from a professional trial coach and changed the way that she behaved professionally. These changes include the amount of smiling that she does, the tone of her voice in certain circumstances, the language she uses and other things.
The article raises many questions about how much of one's self you should alter or change in order to fit the mold of BigLaw success. Alternatively, there are numerous questions as to whether or not the kinds of changes she talks about really change anything about the person you are or whether they are all superficial. Finally, there is the question as to whether change is bad in the first place. After all, each of our life experiences changes us and as long as you have some part in the decision to change it can be positive.
However, I want to look at one aspect of professional behavior. (I know that it is not fair to pick on one little thing from the article, when the message is so much bigger.) That aspect is cursing or "potty mouth" as it is called in the article. Personally, I am not offended by cursing so long as a couple words are never uttered (i.e. the 'c' word and 'n' word). However, I have always noticed that male colleagues or bosses are frequently super-sensitive to swearing in my presence. I've had partners get visibly worried when a client slips an 'f' word into a conversation and even apologize for them to me with their facial expression. I've had countless male colleagues actually verbalize an apology when they have slipped a curse word into our conversations. Let's face it, people have an innate resistance to apologizing. Lawyers are especially resistant. Therefore, my female-ness is causing people I work with to have to undertake an uncomfortable task of apologizing -- or at least they think it does.
I have to assume that any discomfort with swearing in my presence is due to the fact that I am female because I am not aware of any other signal that I give off to warn people not to curse. Like Ms. Myers, I usually try to squash any fears by slipping in a curse word of my own once I've realized that my presence has made people uncomfortable. Still, I can't help but wonder whether an assumption that I'll be offended has kept me from working on deals or even just sitting in on client meetings that would have been beneficial to my career.
There is no solution to this dynamic between women and men. I'll be the first to admit that a little male sensitivity around women is appreciated -- I went to a 90%-male college and heard many conversations that scarred me for life! However, at the same time, I don't want to miss out on client or partner interactions because of a misplaced assumption about my sensitivities. I think I'll take some of Ms. Meyer's advice and be sure to read that book carefully to see what I can do about implementing any suggestions that will keep be from being overlooked for partner some day.
One parting note, I purposely didn't focus on the question of the appropriateness of swearing in a professional context in the first place. I am writing this from a realist's point of view that American's swear, business people swear, lawyers swear, I swear. Also, as I pointed out I am not offended by cursing and I even feel like it is one of the many tools of effective communication that we should use when warranted.