She’s So Girly

My grandmother worked for a toy store when I was little, and I benefitted from whatever she brought home.  Perhaps she planned it, perhaps not, but my toys were not gender-specific.  There were as many Tonka trucks as dolls.  I had Lincoln Logs, Bristle Blocks, Lego bricks, and a whiffle bat and ball.  I had a bright red and blue Big Wheel with a hand brake.  My Weebles wobbled, but they did not fall down … unless I deliberately pushed them out of their tree house.  I had Play Doh, paints and crayons.  I had a ridiculous number of Garfield coloring books and stickers.  I made mud pies, played football, rode a BMX bike, and built forts.  I don’t remember hearing “girls don’t do that,” “girls don’t play with that” or anything particularly gender-determinate from the influential adults in my life.  It may have been the coincidence of being the oldest grandchild.  It may have been the coincidence of growing up in a family where the men were outnumbered (out of 11 cousins only 3 are male).  Whatever the reason, I realized as an adult that my family – and particularly my grandmother – did me an enormous favor, because I did not grow up viewing myself as inferior to boys or men.  In fact, up until I was about 13 years old, I sincerely believed I could and would become the President of the United States. As in – the thought did not occur to me that anyone would have a problem with a woman in that role.  We simply hadn’t found the right woman yet, and I would solve that.

Then, Geraldine Ferraro happened.  I was in eighth grade. I was smack in the middle of puberty.  I was a latchkey kid who watched a lot of television. Somehow, I ended up at a political rally for Walter Mondale at which Annie Potts (who starred in Designing Women at the time) spoke. Geraldine Ferraro spoke about things like equal pay, equal opportunity.  I think that is the point on my life’s timeline at which I can mark my first awareness that the road before me might be a little bumpier, a little windier or – possibly – altogether unpaved because of my gender.

There were many experiences between that time and when I became a parent 11 or 12 years later.  From the obvious – a restaurant manager who sent me up ladders to peek up my uniform’s skirt – to the latent – the English professor who subtly but uniformly dismissed female students’ interpretations of male poets.  I learned enough from those experiences to make a deliberate effort to not constantly remind my son of his gender with everything he looked at or touched.  If he wanted to paint his nails, I let him.  When he wanted a doll, I got him one.  When he wanted a PowerPuff Girls throw blanket, I made it happen.

In first grade, he drew a picture of me and of Father Bear.  Father Bear had a long, pole-like thing coming out of his head. I had a long, pole-looking thing come out of my … um … yeah. When asked what Father Bear’s pole was, he told us, “That’s his shocker thingy.”  When asked about mine, he said, “Those are Mommy’s peanuts.”  Horror and pride make strange bedfellows, I say.

Then there came a day, in the middle of Kmart, when my nine-year-old son announced his desire to deck out his entire bedroom in PowerPuff Girls. I balked. He stood before me, eyes and body in pleading posture, with all the gender obliviousness I so longed for him to have. He looked at the chaos of Pepto Bismol-pink and saw nothing but his favorite cartoon. I stood there blinded by the silent movie playing in my head of an endless stream of third-grade boys pointing, laughing and mocking my sweet and loving dude. I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t find the bravery to say yes. Instead, I said we couldn’t afford the new bedding right then. As it turned out, his interest in PowerPuff Girls morphed into an obsession with Ben 10 (and morphed again and again and again and …), so the topic of the bedding was never revisited. I still wonder, though, whether I would’ve found the fortitude to say yes had he insisted.

Twenty two years after Geraldine Ferraro initiated me into the gender equality wars, I became the mother of a girl. My career made me painfully aware of things like glass ceilings, mommy tracks and boys’ clubs. So, I painted her room butter yellow, slate blue and mint green. I made everyone promise not to buy her pink stuff. There was not a princess anywhere in sight. Her room was filled with stuffed frogs but no dolls. I took her to her first baseball game when she was two months old. She is named after her great-grandmothers, but I loved her name especially because it is both feminine (Helene) and masculine (Len or Leni). She had enough green, blue and orange clothing that at least once a week, someone would say, “Oh, what a beautiful little boy.” An elderly woman did this to her once in the grocery store. When I corrected the woman, she said to me, “Well you dressed her in blue!” I suppose the fact that she was wearing a blue dress was just one detail too many …

Helene is seven now. Her second birthday cake was a %&$@)%^# princess. Her favorite color is  — wait for it — waaaaaaait for it — pink. Pink frosting, pink shoes, pink balloons, pink dishes. If pink is an option, she will pick the pink. She also loves to have her fingernails and toenails painted. (In fact, it was how we finally got her to let us trim her nails without screaming like we were trying to murder her.) She picks out her own polish.  Guess what color.  EVERY.  TIME. Oh, and it has glitter in it, which is fun. (By which I mean NOT AT ALL FUN.) She likes to wear faerie wings and often fancies herself a queen. (Last week, though, she was a king thankyouverymuch). She wants to be a flower and live in a forest when she grows up.  A PINK flower, dammit.

But, like her brother at her age, she doesn’t look at pink and see “girl.” She looks at pink and glitter and faerie wings as things that appeal to her aesthetic. It’s that simple.  And given the amount of time she spends trying to put those faerie wings on her brother, I feel confident saying this. (Aside: mad props to her brother, who rocks those faerie wings like a champ more often than not and has never ONCE said to her anything about boys not wearing them.) When I look at the toys strewn about our living room, there is really nothing about them that would let a stranger know whether a little boy or little girl lives here.  This pleases me because – particularly in the past couple years – Helene picks her own toys.

Yet, I question myself constantly. Am I swinging the pendulum too far the other way?  Isn’t the idea of equality not about making a girl more masculine (or less feminine) but simply about giving her the freedom to choose her own path, wherever that may lead?  Because, the truth is, I don’t care how feminine or masculine she is as an adult. I care only that she arrives at her destination of her own volition – of her own choosing – of her own heart. I want this for both of my children. Have careers, have families, have both, have neither … just be kind, be happy, be responsible, be caring and – above all – be yourself.  None of that is gender-specific.

Which brings me to yesterday. Yesterday, Helene had ABA therapy, and it was rough. She had a hard time transitioning into session. To help her, I offered to paint her fingernails as a distraction to ease her into the routine. She eagerly agreed, and we applied glittery hot pink enamel to her freshly manicured hands. Later, when the therapist was strategizing ways to help Helene with transition in the future, she remarked that Helene is “so girly.” I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck and shot back, “No, she’s really NOT.”  What does “so girly” even mean?!  I’m not a scientist, but I’m reasonably certain – after years of diaper-changing – that Helene came with the standard-issue genitalia. Are there quantities of femaleness?

I took stock of the room – a Lego race car, primary-colored sorting boxes, plush Wonder Pets, Backyardigans, Doc McStuffins and Peppa Pig; dinosaur bowling – and I felt an overwhelming sadness at the reminder of how deeply our biases root into us. The elderly lady in the store who saw blue but not the dress. The therapist who sat amidst the sea of toys and saw only pink glitter nail polish. The me of ten years ago who saw only bullying and not just a favorite cartoon. I ached longingly for the comfort of the obliviousness of my first thirteen years. I wondered how long I preserved that oblivion for my oldest and how long I can for Helene. I took solace in the idea that the very literal way Helene sees the world as a result of autism might insulate her against that bias gaining a foothold in her psyche. Although she has a compelling need to categorize the world, she does it based on facts and not judgments, because that’s just her lens.  A very pink lens that has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with a world that’s more fun with faerie wings and sparkly hands.

We Seem to Have a Breakdown in Communication: Men, Women

I attended a professional function a little while ago that really irked me. I’m going to try to retell the events as objectively as I can, my remarks in bold are my subjective views that explain why I was so bothered.

The function was specifically for women.  The speaker was a “life coach” who was ostensibly there to talk to us about improving our ability to communicate with men.  The life coach opened her presentation by remarking that men and women have different styles of communication.  She also noted that communication is really only 10% the words we say; the remainder is body language and tonality.

So far, I’m with her.  I’m not sure I completely accept the premise that men and women communicate differently, but I’m willing to roll with that.  

The life coach then provides us a square divided into four smaller squares.  Each of the smaller squares describes a communication “style.”  Under each style is a description of the communication traits within the “style” and some data showing the percentage of people who identify with the particular style.  There is no breakdown of the data to show percentage by gender.  The data is also presented in a way that suggests that people must identify with one of the four choices – no shades of grey.

My radar is up.  I don’t deal well in absolutes.  As I’m reading the four styles, I immediately know that I fall somewhere between two of them but not entirely in any of them.  Also, to be fair, I’m irritated because the speaker has made an off-handed (and stereotypical) remark about autism. I’m already struggling to take her seriously.

We spend the next 50 or so minutes talking about the different communication styles in very, very general terms.  We talk about how certain styles have difficulty communicating with other styles.  Still, there is no discussion about how this impacts that woman-communicating-with-man thesis that opened this lecture. Then, the speaker says – and I’m not going to say this is a quote, but it’s a damn good paraphrase – that she doesn’t know a single woman who could spend a week talking about the Super Bowl, but men sure can.  She then asks the group of women assembled whether we know of such a woman.  When we sit there in silence, she takes that as affirmation of her generalization.

Now, I’m done.  I’m furiously texting a co-worker.  I’m watching the clock.  I am praying I don’t shoot my mouth off before …

The speaker opens the conversation up for questions.  She gets one or two obligatory softball questions, but then a couple of direct questions are asked, and the responses are less than direct.  The “sports” thing comes up again.

… too late.  

I raise my hand.  When I’m acknowledged, I say to the speaker that she started her presentation with the statement that men and women communicate differently, that up to this point, I hadn’t really heard anything in her presentation that specifically identified those differences.  In fact, I found myself troubled by the idea that we were sitting here talking about how all men can talk about is sports, and if the tables were turned, and I walked into a room full of men remarking how all women liked to talk about is shopping, I’d be pretty upset. So, I asked her whether she could provide information – either statistics or  facts – that would help us, as women, improve how we communicate with men in the context of her four boxes.

I don’t think she liked my question, because her face squeezed into what I know well as the fuck-off-and-die-smile.  I use it a lot in court. What the speaker did next, though, floored me.

The speaker responded to my question by saying a few things, but the one that stuck out for me was that women need to feel like they have the “right” to speak to communicate well.  So, I asked her how we, as women, develop that sense of entitlement.  She responded by smirking at me and saying, “It comes from experience.  And, I have that experience that, perhaps, a younger woman – in her 20s – doesn’t.”

Wow.  But, wait.  It gets better.

The speaker then starts talking about stress and how “neuroscientists” have determined that women live with a consistently higher degree of stress than men.  This causes, according to the speaker, women to balk at taking on additional responsibilities, because the woman doubts her ability to be successful.  Whereas, men jump at the chance to accept more responsibility, because the “challenge” brings their stress level up no higher than what’s tolerable.

A co-worker asks the speaker about the science behind this.  She explains that she had just recently spoken with her doctor about stress, and his feeling was that the level of stress a person experiences is not the product of extraneous forces but internal response, which varies from person to person regardless of gender.  My co-worker then said, “This isn’t me talking – I’m not smart enough to think this stuff up – this is a medical doctor.”  The speaker then says, “Ah.  You see what you just did there.  You said you weren’t smart.  I mean, I don’t want to single you out or embarrass you, but that’s the kind of self-deprication that women engage in that really hurts them.”

Oh. You mean like how women are catty bitches to one another in the workplace and often their own worst enemies?

Listen, I’m not a big fan of women-only events.  I feel like they serve only to highlight the gender differences that we (as women) assert are the cause of disparate treatment.  And, communication is inherently a two-way event.  How can you possibly hope to improve the way in which one group communicates with another unless you get both groups to the table?  But, even putting that aside, the speaker is a “life coach” who proceeded to give a talk based on gross generalizations, bald assumptions and even stereotypes when she KNEW she was speaking to a room full of women with nothing less than professional degrees.

What are your thoughts, readers?  Where do you come out on women-only events?  Are they useful?  Have any of you ever used a “life coach” with any success?  Is this a “real” profession?  Why do you think women tend to be so competitive with each other?  Or, do you think that?  The whole experience left me with way more questions than answers and a very uneasy feeling in my gut …

Next Thing You Know, the Managing Partner Will Take My Blackberry Outside and Shoot It

I'm taking my ball and going home

I thought it only fair to warn you up front.

Shame parenting managing.  It’s all the rage.

Last week, a law firm’s managing partner – without warning or precedent – emailed all of the attorneys in the firm classed as Special Counsel.  (As background, “Special Counsel” is the title given to those of us with too much experience to be associates but who are not otherwise qualified to be partners.  Some are here by choice and some not.)  Attached to the email was a spreadsheet detailing how many hours each Special Counsel billed so far this year, how much of that time ultimately was not billed to a client, and how far ahead of or off “target” each attorney is.  (For those blissfully ignorant of how law firms work, attorneys are required to bill a certain number of hours per year.  The “target” to which I refer is the annual billing requirement.)

Nowhere in this email is a statement about why the spreadsheet was distributed or whether the information is to be treated as confidential (outside this group, anyway).  The email said only Here’s a report showing who’s done what.  I’ve highlighted the slackers in red.  Pay close attention to them.  Okay.  I paraphrased a little there, but it’s close enough.

I Ate Baby Poop

So, I guess we’re resorting to public shaming as a source of inspirational motivation now. Either do your job, or you will be called out in front of your peers as a loser.  Awesome.  I so enjoyed that in high school, especially because it didn’t harm my self-esteem or self-confidence or desire to even go to school.  Oh, no, not at all.  (Please insert exasperated eye-roll here.)

I have so many problems with this as a management decision, I barely know where to begin.  Some of my issues are impossible to illustrate without showing you said spreadsheet, which I won’t do (even though no one said I couldn’t).  Instead, I am pointing to the spreadsheet while saying, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!”

Do you smell something burning?

For those of you uninitiated into the dark magic that is private law firm practice, let’s talk about what being a private-law-firm lawyer means.  (If you already know – or think you know – just skip right down to the comment section to tell me I’m wrong.  You know you’re going to do that anyway.)

In exchange for an annual salary and benefits package, the attorney is expected to produce a certain number of billable hours (which translates into a certain level of income) for the firm.  Seems fair, right?  Well, let’s look a little deeper, shall we?

According to National Association for Law Placement:

… few [starting lawyers’ ] salaries are actually at the national median of $63,000 or the national average of $84,111. Many salaries cluster at the $40,000 to $65,000 range at the lower end and at the $145,000 to $160,000 range at the high end. The mean and median also skew high because NALP collects more salary information from large than small law firms. When the statistics are adjusted to place greater weight on small firm salaries, national average pay is $77,333 for all full-time jobs.

So, let’s imagine that a lawyer agrees to take a job for $80,000 per year in exchange for billing 2,000 hours.  If billing 2,000 hours meant working 2,000 hours, the attorney would be paid an effective hourly wage of $40.00 per hour.  That certainly beats the hell out of minimum wage!  And – hey! – that doesn’t include your benefits package, so let’s pump that annual salary up to $100,000.  Now, you’re making $50 an hour!

Except you’re not.

Only in an attorney’s wildest (or most unethical) dreams does billing 2,000 hours mean working only 2,000 hours, because it is simply not possible for every minute you spent at work to be billable.  The reasons why could be the subject of an entire blog post itself, so I’ll keep it simple.  You will leave your desk to get a cup of coffee/tea/glass of water at least once during the day, which means you will also need to leave your desk to use the restroom at least once during the day.  You’ve lost at least 15 minutes, right there. Heaven help you if you get hungry and the only thing you find in your desk is a bottle of Tums.

No.  Seriously.  Do you smell something burning?

Instead, let’s just do a little math (at which I am horrible, so I’m going to show my work here).  There are 52 weeks in a year.  Each week contains 5 work days.  (52 * 5 = 260)  Businesses generally observe 12 holidays per year, which reduces the number of work days to 248. (260-12 = 248)  You have two weeks of vacation, which you take, because if you don’t, you will staple all the papers down to your supervising partner’s desk, switch out the coffee to decaf without telling anyone, and run screaming from the building while shouting, “I am a covenant running with the land!”  You’ve now further reduced your work days to 238 (248 – (5×2) = 238).

To work 2,000 hours in 238 days requires working a minimum of 8.4033 hours per day. (2,000 / 238= 8.4033)  We already know that you cannot produce 2,000 billable hours just by working 2,000 hours, so you must work more than 2,000 hours within 238 days.  In other words, plan on working at least nine-hour days or 6 days per week, and you better not get sick.  Ever.  You also better have an exceptionally reliable file clerk who takes his job seriously and isn’t just padding his resume for his law school application, or you will spend two (non-billable) hours on a Saturday afternoon searching your four-story office top to bottom to find that motion you need to oppose by Monday morning.

But, I digress.

Let’s assume that you’re a pretty efficient and super healthy lawyer, so you need only work 10.5 hours per day to produce 8.5 billable hours.  This means, you actually work 2,499 hours per year.  (10.5 x 238 = 2,499)  So, you’re really making between $32 and $40, depending on whose version of your comp plan you believe.

How do those $900/month student loan payments taste, now?  I’m sorry.  What was that?  I couldn’t hear you over the choking.

Lawyers do not get paid overtime.  We get paid whatever salary we agree to and work as many hours as it takes to meet our annual billable hours requirements.  Supposedly, this structure encourages efficiency – a human will instinctively work diligently to accomplish as much work in as little time as possible.  If what lawyers did was repetitive, predictable, formulaic work, that supposition might prove fact.  But, a lawyer’s work is often complex and rife with variables (many of which cannot be accounted for) if for no other reason than the people involved in and necessary to accomplishing the work – the clients, opposing counsel, mediators, arbitrators, judges – are human beings.  (No, it’s true.  I know, I know.  I’ve heard that one, too.)  Efficiency requires cooperation – in this context, among people who are adverse to one another or have divergent interests.  Oh, the horror!  Also, the system actually rewards inefficiency.  Why should I perform research in an hour that used to take me two hours?  Sure, I get the research done faster, which gets me onto the next item on my to-do list, but I just robbed myself (and the firm) of a billable hour.

In fact, the system almost demands inefficiency. Not all the time an attorney spends working toward a client’s goal is billable.  Sometimes you must do administrative work – not billable.  Sometimes a project takes longer than seems reasonable to bill the client (even if that’s actually how long it took) – not billable.  Sometimes, a client will call and ask you a “quick” question, which you answer because it’s good business sense to keep your clients happy – but not billable (and almost never “quick”).  Sometimes, you’re working on a motion, get interrupted by a phone call, during which you get an email, which reminds you of something else you were supposed to do, but none of which you actually remember to write down on your timesheet – thus, not billable (or billed, anyway).

These concepts are not new to law firm management; thus, the birth of “bonuses.”  Attorneys who bill more than their annual requirement are financially awarded with a bonus.  Size of bonus varies wildly from firm to firm, but I think it’s fair to say that you’re looking at something in the neighborhood of $5,000 – $20,000, depending on a variety of factors. I imagine the thinking here was that if the firm set a target higher than the minimum, that came with a greater reward, attorneys would try to reach the higher target (obtaining the greater reward), and if someone fell short – well, it wouldn’t be short of the minimum.  Win-win!

Look, money is nice.  I like money.  It pays bills.  It pays for fun things, like vacations (as in the one I’ll send my spouse and children on so I feel less guilty about being at work all the time).  But, this “motivational tool” misses the point, doesn’t it?  If I’m already killing myself to meet the minimum requirement just to keep my job, why dangle $5,000 in front of me to bring me back to life and kill me again?

What's that ticking sound?

Also, not every billable hour is created equal.  The attorneys in a firm may all bill at different hourly rates, depending on experience, practice area, client base or geographic region.  For example, the Special Counsels in my firm have hourly rates that range between $170 and $350.  Thus, one of my problems with the lying-liar spreadsheet – it focuses on only the number of hours each lawyer billed.  But, several of the attorneys who billed the most hours actually made the firm significantly less money.  Why are we devaluing the work of more profitable attorneys and over-valuing the less profitable work of others?

What we’re doing here doesn’t make any sense.  I get that a law firm must be profitable; if it’s not, it doesn’t exist. But, if the people who generate the work that creates profit must dedicate nearly one-half of their waking lives to the enterprise, they need not only extrinsic motivation (like money, positive acknowledgement, constructive feedback) but intrinsic motivation as well.  They need to love their work and if not love, at least respect the people with and for whom they do it.

(Oh, here, you can check my math on the “nearly one-half” thing:  365 x 24 = 8,760 (number of hours in a year).  365 x 8 = 2,920 (number of hours you (should) sleep).  8,760 – 2,920 = 5,840 (number of hours you are awake in a year).  2,499 / 5,840 = .4279 (number of hours you are awake divided by number of hours you must work equals percentage of waking hours spent at work).  Yes, I rounded up a little.  Sue me.)

So, how do you do it?  How do you motivate a group to work according to the demands of the work itself and the expectations of the law firm (which reasonably include being profitable)?


I’d argue – quite forcefully – that it’s not by shame, humiliation or public embarrassment.  If you want to demoralize someone, those are all very effective means of accomplishing that goal.  But, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand  that demoralized people aren’t very productive.  A person shamed by someone she doesn’t already have great affection or admiration for likely responds by withdrawal or by actively building negative consensus about the person who shamed her.  A person shamed by someone whom she loves or respects is likely to be heartbroken and may also seek to discredit the person doing the shaming.

Do you want your law firm’s profitability determined by a bunch of withdrawn and heartbroken people, some of whom may be actively spreading the message that you suck?  That would not make me sleep well at night.

You also don’t motivate people to contribute their best efforts by creating evaluative benchmarks that are obviously inequitable.  You cannot value a $350 hour the same as a $175 hour.  You can’t value 1,900 hours billed at $200 per hour the same for Attorney A and Attorney B if Attorney A collected payment on all 1,900 hours and Attorney B collected only 85% of what was billed. You must account for the disparate difficulty in producing an hour of billable work between – say  — a construction defect attorney who attends depositions five days per week and an appellate law attorney who must spend hours combing through a trial record to prepare an appeal.  And, you can’t ignore results – attorneys whose billable time achieves or realizes a client goal has a different value to the firm than time spent otherwise.

I think Stephen Covey (author of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) hit the nail on the head when he wrote about the need for organizational management to stop focusing on employees as “things” that perform tasks and instead as actual human beings who not only perform work but bring knowledge, creativity, inspiration and passion to the table.

… Because many in positions of authority do not see the true worth and potential of their people and do not possess a complete, accurate understanding of human nature, they manage people as they do things. This lack of understanding prevents them from tapping into the highest motivations, talents, and genius of people. [¶] What happens when you treat people like things today? It insults and alienates them, depersonalizes work, and creates low-trust, unionized, litigious cultures. People stop believing that leadership can become a choice. … Simply put — at its most elemental and practical level — leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. Think about this definition. Isn’t this the essence of the kind of leadership that influences and truly endures? – Stephen Covey, excerpted from The 8th Habit.

Attorneys need constructive criticism.  If you’re not getting your job done, you deserve to hear about it.  (And, by “deserve” I don’t mean you should get what’s coming to you – although that may be true at times.  I mean you are owed that much by the firm for the work you did do.)  To be constructive, however, the criticism must be delivered so that it is not only received but also digested. Were I Queen of the World, this would mean that criticism would be individually tailored and far more holistic than it is now.  Instead of calling anyone out or myopically (and arbitrarily) focusing on production in terms of hours billed, I’d deliver the criticism in a one-on-one format, invest the attorney in the conversation by asking for self-evaluative feedback, and focus more broadly on the attorney’s value to the firm in terms of profitability, production, results, and culture.  In other words, fuel an attorney’s passion; don’t eclipse it or squelch it.

Autism, Equality, Education: the Start of a Good Debate

I just finished reading this post by @mamabegood on her blog of the same name. The post and the comments contain a great, interesting discussion about the inherent tension in addressing what “mainstreaming” means (or ought to mean) for children who aren’t neurotypical.  It’s definitely worth reading through the entire thread.

I fall somewhere between Brenda’s view and that of Elise Ronan (@RaisingASDKids) (see the comments).  I haven’t decided quite yet how to articulate that, but I will post more later.