Jennifer Keys

We can be “sheroes”

Being a woman in the legal profession--in particular a woman of color--presents unique challenges, but also creates an opportunity for sharing a different perspective.

Although women no longer struggle for equality in the right to vote and in the right to education, women still must fight for equal opportunities in the workplace. As more women entered the American workforce, the tide of criticism against working mothers also rose. Some continue to blame mothers in the workplace for what they call the decline in the American family. However, I believe this is a tactic to prevent women from succeeding professionally and to guilt them into remaining in their perceived place.

I personally have felt this pressure. I gave birth to my daughter while in college. For many people, her birth was the end of my future. However, I refused to accept this as my reality. Balancing motherhood, a job and my studies proved to be difficult, but I focused on graduating. My mother also was a single mom, struggling to raise my sister and me without any help from my father. She didn't have a college degree so entering into a lucrative career while raising her children alone wasn't an option. Instead, she chose to stay at home to give us the attention we needed and had to rely on public aid to support us financially. I didn't want to be so limited in my choices. I wanted my daughter to see me succeed, despite the odds I faced. She was only a baby at the time and won't remember sitting on my lap while I tried to write my papers on the computer, but when she gets older maybe she'll realize how hard I had to work to give her a better life. I worked part-time as a cashier, sometimes hiding notes in my smock so I could sneak in a few minutes of preparation for the next day's exam between customers. Although some people, including my own mother, didn't think it was possible, I still graduated--with honors.

Now my daughter is 8, and I am already on to my second career. Unlike many critics, I do not believe being a mother and a professional has hampered my ability to perform either job. Being a mother makes me a better worker and being a worker makes me a better mother. I must be focused and efficient in both in order to be successful in either. In my full-time job as a journalist prior to attending law school, I spent less time chatting with co-workers or taking long lunches because I knew work had to be done in order for me to leave the office at a decent hour to see my daughter at home. My daughter recently called me her "shero." I know I serve as a role model to her and have shown her a possibility I did not see as a youth--that women can be wives, mothers and accomplished professionals.

Being a woman also provides a unique insight in the workplace. Because women have different life experiences than men, we are able to see things differently. Women know how to juggle many tasks and how to wear many hats all at the same time. Doing so provides them with the ability to take on numerous roles without being overwhelmed. Furthermore, women are able to contribute ideas that many times never enter into the realm of men's worlds. Because women deal with issues of equal treatment, sexual harassment and criticism for choosing careers and family, we relate to many kinds of marginalized people. Because the law is the conduit to protect the powerless, women's perspectives are all the more important.

Finally, being a woman of color adds yet another layer of perspective. As an African American woman, I have faced discrimination both because I am a woman and because I am a person of color. But I have also contributed in many ways to my workplaces because of the diversity and insight I bring. Even the most enlightened man and non-minority woman do not quite grasp the difficulties of being black in America. It is critical to the advancement of this country that minorities continue to succeed in their professional careers. Women of color are needed the most in the workplace not just for their own personal achievement, but also in making others aware of their ability to make significant contributions to our society. This is particularly true in the legal profession where changing the law often is the answer to the struggle for civil rights.

America has come a long way in its acceptance of women in the workforce. However, until women are paid equal pay for equal work and women are no longer criticized for their choice to pursue a career and raise a family, there is much more work that needs to be done. Every woman with a professional career has a responsibility in fighting for those changes, and I plan to do my part.

The photo accompanying this article is by pinkafterglow, reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

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