I’m Not Just A Token
I was promoted because I was good at my job and being a woman didn’t hurt
I was sitting in my office about two hours ago, talking to our Managing Partner about billable numbers for some of the associates in my area. It was a relatively informal chat, so the door was open and we both were sitting rather lazily in our chairs laughing about bits and pieces.
Then there was a knock at the door and it was a male colleague of mine who was a Senior Associate.
“Hey Beth, would you mind moving your car? You’re in the spot closest to the lifts and with my foot, I really need that spot. Thanks.”
I looked at my boss, shocked by the interruption and slightly embarrassed that I’d made some kind of parking faux pas.
“Sorry, I didn’t know. As soon as we’re done here, I’ll go move it and come tell you. I was just in early to go to the gym…”
Our Managing Partner cut me off and turned his attention to the younger man still leaning against my doorway nonchalantly.
“Hold on, you’re not a partner. Beth is a partner and she can park in any of the partner spots, it’s first-come, first-serve. You shouldn’t even be using those spots.”
The younger guy suddenly stood up very straight and got very uncomfortable in his own skin. He’d overstepped and been called on it. I would have let it go and just moved my car, ignoring all hierarchy and protocol, but my boss, like a lot of old school lawyers believed that stuff was important because it was earned, not given.
“Oh… Jessie from HR knows about my foot injury and she said I could park in partner parking until my moon boot comes off. I was just a bit late today and had to take the furthest spot away and Jessie said she spoke to the partners about keeping the close spot open for me.”
My boss looked at me and it was clear he was now slightly annoyed, “Jessie isn’t a partner, either. She doesn’t tell partners where to park. I’ll let her know the limits of her role when I’m done with Beth. Speaking of which, Beth isn’t moving her car, she’s got work to do. From tomorrow, you park in visitor’s parking and pay for it like everyone else who isn’t a partner here.”
The younger man skulked away.
My boss turned his attention back to me, “Beth, you need to stand your ground more. You’re up here and they’re down here,” he gestured with one hand above the over, “You’re where you are because you’ve earned it. I believe in you, the partners believe in you, and you’re one of the best partner recommendations I’ve ever made in my career. Don’t forget that.”
I Earned My Spot
For the first ten years of my legal career, I was mediocre.
I didn’t really “love” the law like my parents, I just liked the job and the trappings that it brought with it.
My day would start two minutes before my first billable client and end two minutes after my last billable moment of the day. I didn’t put so much as 10% extra into my job or career.
And I was ok with that. They paid me to do a job, I did it well, and then I went home to spend time with my husband or my friends. When my daughters came along, that was another reason to get out of there.
Speaking of my daughters, our firm offered female associates 6 months full paid maternity and an extra 6 months at half pay. I took 12 months off for each of my two daughters and didn’t feel guilty at all. I knew that I would have to come back after each of those years and put in another full year for the firm to effectively repay my maternity leave.
Our firm and the partners are incredibly progressive, even by Australian standards, which aren’t bad. Our female staff has it pretty good in this firm.
When Jamie had his accident five years ago, the partner and junior partner overseeing my area were both women and they were very hard on me about the time I was taking off. I think they felt that I was letting the sisterhood down and the junior partner even said to me one time, “Beth, you’ve just taken off two of the last four years to have kids, and now you’ve taken off weeks to look after your husband. It’s going to be hard to positively review your performance and more junior male colleagues are going to demand they leapfrog you because they’ve put the time in.”
I didn’t care. “Leapfrog me”? What was this, primary school?
Then something happened.
I started to change as a person. I got more into my fitness, I became more aware of who I was and what I liked sexually, my confidence grew, and everything I did in life I attacked with more vigor.
That included my work and I became better at my job because I started taking less crap and I began to act like a boss.
About six months into my transformation, my Senior Partner left the firm unexpectedly. She had a falling out with our Managing Partner and she quit.
Then within weeks, our Junior Partner left to move overseas to be with her lover that she’d met online. This was before gay marriage was legal in Australia, so she moved to Canada to marry her wife.
Our team had no partners and no leaders.
I was called into a meeting with our Managing Partner and asked to lead the group on an interim basis until the firm figured out what to do.
Then, another Senior Partner in a different area developed breast cancer and left the firm.
Meanwhile, in the six months that I’d been leading our team, our billable hours were up, our client satisfaction was higher, and I’d focused on cross-selling within the firm and that metric tripled.
I delivered results and we were three female partners down in a single year.
I got offered a full partnership, skipping the Junior Partner stage altogether.
Not Everyone Agreed, But Who Cares?
I remember standing in the kitchenette outside our boardroom about four weeks after my partnership and promotion were announced. I was around the corner from the main area filling up my water bottle just out of sight.
“Of course Beth was promoted, they were always going to make the new partners women.”
That was a kick in the guts.
My confidence levels had grown, my output and deliverables at work had improved exponentially, and when the firm needed me, I stepped up and did the job.
To reduce that down to the fact that I had a vagina hurt me deeply.
For the rest of that week, I spent my time solidly in the dumps, questioning myself, and connecting the dots trying to prove that they were right and I was just another token woman being promoted.
That weekend, I had brunch with my mother. She is one of the women trailblazers of the Australian legal profession and I told her how I was feeling and what I’d heard.
She laughed. She laughed a lot.
“Betty, who cares? If being a woman helped you, so what? Think of all the times that being a woman worked against you. Think of the times that women like me were passed over for promotion because we couldn’t play golf and hang out in the change room sweating with grubby men. If being a woman worked in your favor this time, then we should celebrate that because it’s been a long time coming.”
It was like my mother had re-lit my spark with her pep talk.
If the partners in my firm decided that they needed more female partners to ensure diversity of thought at the most senior level, great. They still picked me, I still earned it.
They could have appointed someone else or hired some other woman away from another firm, but they didn’t, they chose me.
They chose me because I was the best person for the job.
And a year later when I was promoted to Senior Partner, it wasn’t based on my gender because we have more female Senior Partners than males… it was because, for the 18 months that I was in my role, my team and I were shooting the lights out. We smashed every target and became a disproportionately large contributor to our firm’s profits.
I achieved that because I was good at my job, not because I was lacking a Y chromosome.
Sexism Is About Taking Your Power Away
The most important lesson that came from this entire episode for me is that other people, both men and women, ironically, were trying to diminish me to make themselves feel better.
My husband says that it is easier for some people to tear other people down than it is to lift themselves up.
I never once asked for anything. I didn’t seek promotion and I didn’t ask for power. I went to work every day, did the best that I could, tried hard to make everyone around me successful, and good things happened.
And people, important people, noticed.
The big takeaway for me is that increasingly, there are more and more “good” people rising to positions of power. They see people for the caliber of their work and the quality of their humanity ahead of gender or skin color.
What I learned from this is that sexism is about reducing the power that those good people have and sullying the achievements of people who’ve earned their way ahead.
So, some people might think that I’m a “token”.
Well, that says more about them than it does about me. I’ve earned my place, I’ve gotten the results, and I’m now in a position of power where I can make sure that the people coming up below me get a hand up the ladder no matter if they are wearing high heels or loafers.
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