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In Her Shoes: Female Attorneys on Golf and Stilettos

Advice to a new lawyer about golf, shoes and corporate culture. Inspired by the ferocious debate about Hillary Clinton, post-feminism, sexism, and stilettos.

Contributed by Jacqueline Church

224432608_1b5c78576c_m.jpg“Golf. That’s all they talk about at my firm – Golf!”

She wrinkled her nose as if you’d just put something smelly under it.

An accomplished, smart, young associate at a large law firm, my friend is determined to make her billable hours, do good work, learn everything she can, and make herself more valuable to the firm. She’s not really sure why that should include learning how to golf.

As a non-practicing attorney who was in her shoes not so long ago, I offered her the following advice:

• if that’s what they’re talking about at the firm, it’s incumbent on you to study up;
• golf is much more fun to play than to watch;
• learning a little golf will improve your client work as well as your office relationships.

Then, I gave her the name of a good instructor and my recommendation that she take some lessons soon. I could tell she wasn’t buying it without more evidence. (Better she take up golf than poker, I thought.)

Should it be her job to ensure that the men in the firm are comfortable with her? Even if it means learning to golf? No, it shouldn’t be. Should she do it anyway? You bet.

The golf debate is a good metaphor for other challenges young women entering the workforce face.
Pretending these challenges don’t exist will not make them go away. Tackling them in a “change the world” fashion is also not recommended. Trying to convince male lawyers that golf shouldn’t matter?
Try to convince a fish that water isn’t important; you’ll have an easier time.

If you want to succeed in highlighting how different you are from men in the firm, go ahead and tackle the golf thing, as they’ve already noticed if you can’t talk golf with them.

Understanding the firm’s culture, and deciding how to be successful within it, is the key. Each person must decide how much they want to accommodate, and what feels authentic. No matter what path you choose, do it with awareness. Aside from legally sanctioned behaviors, the daily slings and arrows are ours to endure, or to dodge. A little experience can help.

In possession of freshly minted credentials, you can be certain that everyone should believe you are as capable as the next guy. To succeed it takes both credentials and “street cred.” One only need look at the debate about presidential candidates and their “qualifications” to understand this.

So Many Shoes, So Few Trials.
Shoes seem to be the catalyst for many debates about feminism and corporate culture now. Stilettos, flip flops, sensible shoes: what do the choices say about us? Should they matter?

When I first set foot in a Boston court room as a “2L,” I had no idea what lessons I’d learn that day. The most important ones was not about the law.

A law student from a higher ranking law school was clerking for the judge while I was interning with the attorney appearing in his court. After he explained to me, sua sponte, the highly competitive nature of the admissions process at his school, he looked at my feet and said, “Nice shoes.”

They were nice shoes, too. Classic and twice as expensive as his, it was plain to see.

But I got the point. I knew that shoes shouldn’t matter. Even if they did, mine were better. But that still didn’t matter. It was also clear he felt entitled to judge me and to note, however subtly, that I stood out. These were not Lucite platforms, by the way. They might as well have been. Just by being female, I was easily dismissed, even by a peer, a 2L, another nobody!

I never wore those shoes in court again.

Golf, Fashion Choices and Being Included
Years later, in a startup, I was invited to join a golf scramble with the guys. As the only woman. I brought the cigars, took some lessons and sunk the winning putt for my team. In the same job, a VP tried to give me grief for something I wore one day. Keep in mind, his was a tech startup. Half the guys were in shorts and Tevas, often with socks.

I was confident and accomplished enough at this juncture to laugh it off, pointing out that he just needed to get with the times, adding that in New York or any other major city, I’d be right in style. I earned my way to this point. I was also the only female who the top guys felt comfortable telling jokes around.

About golf, Phyllis Diller once said: The reason the pro tells you to keep your head down is so you can’t see him laughing.

Golf will make you laugh and make you cry, like the guy who finished third in the Masters, Brandt Snedeker. He finished third after being in contention to win. Tears flowed and he compared his crying to another golfer he’d seen crying over a loss “like a girl whose prom date didn’t show.” He’s received an outpouring of support because of his obvious love of the game. While the Masters was being covered, Lorena Ochoa, a 26-year-old woman from Mexico, became the second-youngest player in L.P.G.A. history to qualify for the Hall of Fame, although she cannot be admitted until 2012. Since 2006 she has made over $8 million and won over 18 times. Snedeker’s third place at the Masters earned $435,000..

The moral of the story is that, if the guys at work saw you as that passionate about golf, they’d want you on their team, whether it was on the course or in the office. They’d know you were one of them. Or, you could wait for them to notice you working quietly away in your cube.

Whether it’s a choice of shoes or a choice of hobby, just make sure you understand what’s to be gained or lost in the choosing.

0 Response

  1. I have to say, I cringe a little at this idea that Golf is some boys only sport. It seems like such a retro notion in the age of great female golfers like Anika Sorenstam that women have to be schooled into golf kicking and screaming. I was on the golf team in both high school and college and I am a woman. It’s a rewarding sport that offers a lot of different lessons and a nice walk to boot. I also like my heels, and a good poker game.

    Until recently, I was the only woman full time in my office. I didn’t feel compelled to change my shoes, or start wearing my golf gloves as an accessory. I opted instead to be friendly, make a few jokes, not get offended at every turn, look them dead in the eye, and shoot from the hip. Its about setting the tone, by being approachable, capable, and not making them feel like you’re the Genghis Khan of feminism ready to bust them. My gender is irrelevant to my ability.

    I’ll hit the back nine with them because I want to, because it takes the pressure off, and it’s nice to chat outside the office. I’d also do it if it were beneficial to a deal, lots of things are, it doesn’t make you less principled. If you don’t like golf, fine. Find other things to talk about and don’t recoil in horror when it comes up at the coffee cart. That’s what turns people off, not your ability to play. The new associate is just that, new. The dynamics exist before new people, so enter in without making it all about you.

  2. Bailey: I wonder if you’ve read the commentary about Hillary (see The Hillary Effect – sidebar)? The debate raging in New York Magazine’s “The Feminist Reawakening” and the WSJ “Gender at the Barricades” which also cover this.

    So many young women think institutional sexism doesn’t exist. Or doesn’t apply to them. Like a “no smoking” section of a restaurant or a “pee free” end of the pool

    I don’t think anyone advocated being “a Genghis Khan” about feminism, but that might be what opened the doors to women at your golf club. Or your office.

    What happens, unfortunately is that you are perceived as such if you don’t laugh at a sexist joke. (see the reports of men dismissing women with the “Whatever, Hillary” comment.) Interesting piece in BBC about a HUGE payout by UBS to a woman who was routinely excluded, yes golf plays a part in that story, too.

    By pretending sexism doesn’t exist, or that women who have issues bring it upon themselves, one becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. 38,000 men joined an internet club with a title along the lines of Hillary, Make Me a Sandwich…38,000.

    I’ve seen young women “shoot from the hip”, golf with the boys and think they’re being perceived as equals. You only have to take a count in almost any organization at the gender breakout level by level to see even the 22-25% of golfers that women comprise, hasn’t been reflected at the top.

    Gender SHOULD be irrelevant to your ability. Until it truly is the case that people are assessed in a bias-free way, it’s incumbent on women to appreciate what the opportunities are changing things in your workplace, in smart ways and in fun ways, like playing golf. Which is fun. And still excludes women at the many turns.

  3. I have to agree with Jacqueline on this- hands down. I was recently in NYC on business and dined by myself at a popular grill and was seated next door to two educated, under 30 year old men whose idea of “equality” in the work force frankly disappointed me and scared the hell out of me. Their conversation went something like this:

    “So he got fired for supposed sexual harassment in the office and he had made partner! Can you believe that?!” His pal replies, “Sexual harrassment is always B.S.- that never exists anyway. C’mon now!” His pal retored, “No kidding. But anyway, this guy was fired..” After which they proceeded to refer to women’s anatomy as, shall we say the derogatory form of a kitty and how many they’d “had.” THe one guy discussed how for his 30th birthday he’d like to go to Mexico- hence I knew their age.

    I took a good, long look at them to see if they were really young, educated men and not some “old boys” having scotch and cigars after a full day of getting “kitty” from the secretary. I was shocked. THIS is the up and coming generation of “sexism-free” or gender-neutral businessmen in corporate America? If it is- girls, hold on to your golf clubs- because that’s going to be the LEAST of your very tired concerns!

  4. Bailey

    I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist. I just flatly refuse to let it enter the conversation. And not surprisingly, it never has. If you go looking to get offended you’ll probably find something to be offended about. If someone is making blatantly sexist comments, that’s one thing. If you get “excluded” from a golf game by virtue of having ovaries, ok. But life is too short and my career potential is too short to pause at some sidebar comment about my shoes. More often then not I’ll throw back one about theirs, it’s made more friends then enemies.

    And yes, I have laughed at the “sexist” joke from time to time not because I felt compelled to but because it was funny and I’m not really interested in apologizing for that. It’s pretty easy to tell the different between a joke as a joke and a joke as an insult. I passed fourth grade recess with flying colors.

    When I got hired as the first and only woman, I took a little pause, perhaps I was a quota, or a diversity move, what have you. I understand that those types of hiring decisions are still pervasive. I also understand I sat down with the CEO and got my gig because of what I had to say and I’m still very upfront and uncensored about what I have to say. He will likely be the first to tell you what a mixed blessing that is!

    When I hire for positions I look at qualifications and personality not gender. I can only live as one person and be responsible for my decisions. If I pick the guy over the girl it’s because of what is on his resume and not because she has ovaries.

    I don’t want to be in a workplace where everyone is on eggshells about who is going to get offended next. I don’t have time for that, I want to work and go out for a beer after and I don’t really care if it’s with all men, half women, all women. Its not a denial of history past or present.

    What I didn’t like about this piece was that it reinforced this ongoing charade that women don’t like sport and are obsessed with shoes. It’s a two way street, you can’t rock those stereotypes and be surprised when someone uses it against you. You don’t like golf? Ok talk about “The Office” and see if you get any takers. I think as women we have to create change as much by example as by stamping our feet and demanding action. Some times change by example is just grabbing a beer, making a friend, and saving the bra burning for the weekend.

  5. Nicki Gilmour

    dont create a pink ghetto, find common interests.
    In the book WHY WOMEN MEAN BUSINESS , the authors Alison and Avivah talk about approach gender in a bi-lingual sense. speak both gender languages – recognise they are different. celebrate the differences, without tolerating the boys club. i think its possible. Its not men that are the problem, its people who cant free think and follow “the way it is”. Stand up for your principals, create the tipping point.

  6. No one’s burning bras. I play golf (sank the winning 11 foot putt in the scramble), I wear shoes I like to wear. I was the one woman invited into the closed door joke sessions – because they knew they could trust me and my trust of them.I learned how to earn the respect that I have though. I have seen countless young women who assume the men are taking them seriously and they are horribly misreading it. I still defend them.

    You misread the intent of the article I think, Bailey, as well as the content. But that’s okay. Did you read the other articles? Maybe it will help you see, it’s not just bra burners and old farts like me (I’m sure I look quite different than you might imagine.) There is humor in my piece, perhaps too subtle.

    Also, I’d just ask you to print this out put it away for about 20 years, then take it out and re-read it. Chances are you’ll have a different reaction. I’d bet my Blahniks.

  7. Ashley

    Hi, it so funny that you write about shoes and the law. I worked for a firm this summer and they kept making comments about my shoes. I would greatly appreciate if you wrote me an email. I would like to discuss this topic further with you, considering you were once an attorney (or maybe started practicing again).

    Thank you.

  8. Ms. Excluded

    What a great post! Unfortunately, I found it at a bad time. I’m in the position of having to try to find advice as to what to do with my current work situation.

    I’m working for a small law firm that has six attorneys – five men and I’m the lucky female. I’ve been with the firm for the past year and I’ve been continuously excluded from events, lunches, and seminars which are attended by all of the attorneys. Every morning my boss walks by and makes it a point to say hi and walk into the neighboring attorney’s office and walks past my office without even so much as a wave. On Fridays the attorneys get together for lunch and on occassion I get the invite. Lunch meetings with local legal groups or politicians, even the ones where I tell my boss the day before that I’d like to go, he grabs all of the other attorneys and walks out without bothering to let me know he’s leaving. I’ve heard of sexist joke emails being sent around by my boss (according to him the email was sexist) that I never receive but I would love to see them just to feel included. Not only that, my office is the filing room for a major case and is also the printing room. Obviously, the other attorneys have amazing offices that do not have such distractions. There are days that I question whether all of this is because I’m a woman, if there is something about me that they just don’t like, maybe I did something so that I don’t deserve to be treated the same, etc.

    When I realized what was going on, I started including myself in everything. If everyone is smoking cigars out on the deck, I invite myself up to join them; if I see them piling into my boss’ vehicle for lunch, I run out to join them; I’ve repeatedly requested to have my office cleaned up and the printer removed; instead of waiting for my boss to acknowledge my presence, I say hi to him in the morning.

    I feel like I have two choices: sit around and count everything I’m continually not included in or just include myself. I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing or whether there are some other solutions out there. I love my work. I’m nervous about leaving the firm because I don’t want to change the type of work that I’m doing and I’m afraid I would not have a good answer for “Why did you leave your last firm?”

    Obviously, I’m a new attorney and need some help. (Also, there are two other male attorneys that have started at the same time so the fact that I’m new doesn’t appear to be the reason for the constant exclusions.) Any suggestions that you have on how to handle this, I’d love to hear them!