Join the Conversation: What For?

“To what purpose?  This was why they started us here [at the tennis academy] so young:  to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws.” – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

I realize that my posts to date have largely focused on how to increase retention and success of women and racial minorities in high-powered, male-dominated institutions where it takes mentors and sponsors in order to rise up the ranks.  Sometimes these articles make me feel that I should try to stay and make it, that my success is tied to the length of time I work in Big Law, and that if I left, I would become another woman of color casualty of Big Law.  So I have been meaning to write a post that questions why women and minorities should try to stay and rise to the top of these institutions.  What for? 

Given how hard it is for women – especially women of color – to find sponsors, support, and a sense of belonging at these institutions not to mention the litany of more universal sacrifices ranging from sleep to mental wellbeing, what is it that makes these daily battles worth fighting?  What is it that gives meaning to our perseverance?  What is the light at the end of the tunnel? 

I don’t know how easy it is for others to answer to these questions, but for me, the answer has never been easy.  For some, the answer lies in the economic independence and freedom that these jobs afford compared to most other jobs.  Having worked part-time in coffee shops and retail stores and full-time at nonprofits, it felt like a relief when I arrived at a law firm that offered unlimited paid sick days and vacation days, five months of paid maternity leave, healthcare benefits, not to mention more than quadruple the salary – plenty to afford childcare and other luxuries and conveniences. 

These benefits cannot be taken for granted, especially when almost half of employed mothers lack sick days and vacation leave, about half of employed mothers are unable to take time off to care for a sick child, and only half of women receive any pay during maternity leave.  In addition, many part-time jobs lack basic healthcare benefits and demand fluctuating schedules that allow little to no advanced planning.    

For some, the answer lies in the pursuit of power and equality.  Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, believes that “increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality.”  She believes that “if we can succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels, we will expand opportunities and extend fairer treatment to all” because “conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”  She believes that because women hold only 15 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percent of board seats, and 19 percent of elected congressional seats – and women of color hold only 4 percent of top corporate jobs, 3 percent of board seats, and 5 percent of congressional seats – “when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.” 

Similarly, Liberian women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbhowee is reputed to have said that if American women want to help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in places like Liberia, we should get “more women in power.” 

But of women working in high-powered, male-dominated institutions like big law firms or Fortune 500 companies, how many of us have used our voice, money, or power in ways that have truly helped women who have experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war or improved the lives of our less privileged counterparts?  Are Sheryl Sandberg’s and Leymah Gbhowee’s beliefs backed by evidence, or are they just beliefs that make us feel better about our pursuit for power? 

According to a British study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, mainstream debates about gender equality have promoted equality for elite women at the expense of working-class women by obsessing over equality in the boardroom and breaking the glass ceiling.  The report concludes that “gender justice at the top is not enough” for purposes of achieving equality – not to mention a living wage – for women at the other end of the income spectrum. 

According to a New Republic article by Elizabeth Bruenig, when women in high-income jobs are busy negotiating our own maternity arrangements, the results of our negotiations do not trickle down to improve or even create maternity programs for our less privileged counterparts.  So in reality, we high-income women have not effectively, noticeably, or sufficiently used our power to create more equality for women at large but instead we have neglected it:  “These wealthier women and their families are the ones with the money and influence to push ad campaigns and dabble in politics – that is, they’re the ones with the power to effect change for all women.  But they’re not likely to wield their power in that way.” 

I don’t know the extent to which rising to the highest levels of law firms and Fortune 500 companies is a realistic means for women to improve equality for women at large.  I don’t know of any rigorous U.S.-based studies that support or refute this argument or even how feasible it is to research this question.  But whether you are in it for the economic independence, the power, the respect, the love for the job itself, the pursuit of equality, or something else, it is important to know exactly why you are in it because otherwise, we risk accidentally becoming tools of someone else’s diversity campaign or someone else’s marketing.   

We risk blindly pursuing a prize for the sake of the pursuit.  I don't want articles that promote hiring and retention of women and diverse associates to create the belief that staying or even joining a high-powered law firm is inherently desirable for women and minority attorneys; that as women and minority attorneys, we should normatively try to stay; or that somehow to prevail as a woman or minority attorney means to rise to the top of these institutions. 

And we risk having no idea how to answer when people ask us:  What do you do when human rights and civil rights are undermined during your comfortable life, sliver by sliver, minute by minute?  What do you do when the sea levels rise millimeter by millimeter?  What do you do when you see injustice, but your life is becoming more successful by the day?  These are deeply personal decisions that I struggle with every day.  I don’t think that we have to all choose human rights over perpetuating our own power or the environment over our own comfort.  But we should probably at least recognize and be honest about the choices we make – if for nothing else than to prepare for the day when we wake up and wonder:  why and to what did we give away all these hours of our lives?  

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