Jan 18, 2013

Should Gender Matter at Work?

I’ve gotten into the habit of striving to be gender-neutral at work. Nobody told me to do this, it just sort of happened. 

I think it started after I had kids. Given the lack of women in leadership at large law firms, I figured I’d have to downplay my mommyhood to get ahead. So my appointment at the pediatrician’s office became “important meeting with client” on my calendar. I became an expert in using the mute button on my mobile phone and quieting noisy children. I took great care not to complain at work about sick kids or daycare drama.

But somewhere in the process, something else happened. Somewhere, deep down, I started to apologize for my gender. Sometimes, this apologetic tone is overt—like my unsolicited confession that I am leaving the office early to pick up my daughter at piano. “I know I’m leaving early today, but my sitter has to study for exams. I’ll be in early tomorrow morning.” Even though I’m a partner and theoretically my own boss, I still feel the need to explain my actions—and to seek pardon from the entire office.

But usually, my apologies are more subtle, even unintentional. Like when I get up in the morning and get dressed for work: while my favorite leopard-skin blazer is calling me, instead, I reach into the closet for black and grey. The subliminal fashion police are telling me to appear neutral, especially if there is an important meeting scheduled. Besides, my sixth-grade son recently announced that leopard-skin clothing is not “professional.” I decide to blend in. 

I’ve even assumed at times, wrongly, than my gender is a disadvantage in business. While women make up over 46% of the workforce, it’s no secret that women struggle to hold the highest positions in management. Only 4 in 10 businesses worldwide have women in senior management, and women earn less than men in 99% of all occupations. By saying gender matters, am I just perpetuating these trends?

A recent experience caused me to rethink this. During an initial meeting with a prospective client about a sensitive case, I thoroughly presented my qualifications, references, and experience with similar cases. I was feeling pretty confident on the merits when I asked him, “What are you looking for in a lawyer?”  

He blurted out without hesitation, “I’d really like a woman to handle this matter.”

His comment caught me off guard. Was that supposed to be a compliment? Since I happen to be a woman, I didn’t take offense. After all, research shows that women are effective problem-solvers, bringing a holistic and collaborative approach to business solutions. But I wasn’t exactly flattered either. 

It’s not like I did anything to become a woman. It’s just who I am.

While no one wants to be the “token” man or woman on a matter, I’m starting to consider that gender can play a positive role in our work.  After all, gender is part of our God-given identity. It’s part of who we are. So why shouldn’t it factor into our decisions to put diverse teams together with multiple perspectives, backgrounds, and approaches? Shouldn’t it be a strength rather than a weakness?

I did what any good lawyer would do. I took the case.

Post by Susan DiMickele. Image by Stephen Chipp. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

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