Guest Blog: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I belong to a family law listserv that includes others besides members of the family law legal community. The other day, a professional preparing a vocational evaluation inquired as to whether any of the attorneys on the listserv would hire as a paralegal a woman who had a 30 year-old paralegal certificate and had not worked as a paralegal since 4 months after receiving it. This resulting question and answer brought me up short:
A male attorney answered, “If she’s Scarlett Johannsen [sic], yes. Or Jennifer Lawrence.”
A female attorney responded, “So . . . if she was good looking eye candy, her actual skills wouldn’t matter? What is this, 1950?”
1950 indeed. Insuring we were not in a time warp, the female responding attorney was told that the male attorney was just joking.
I privately thanked the woman for speaking out, but as I thought about this exchange, it seemed to me that we were in a teachable moment. We used to call it consciousness raising. I thought about black face make-up. I thought about Polish jokes. I thought about “there was a car crash with a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister…” I thought about blonde jokes. I thought about how many times the subject of the joke was told to suck it up, laugh it off, or be considered humorless by the joke teller and audience. I thought about all the times an audience sucked it up and laughed it off, even when they didn’t like it, rather than appear humorless or non-collegial. And so, I wrote:
“I have read the emails with some interest. It is easiest to say nothing, but I believe that it is more important to speak up regarding the issue that has been created, than to remain silent and lose the opportunity for some consciousness raising.
Persons who are not white, male or protestant, or heterosexual, have long been subjected to jokes that are painful to them, but as to which they are told they should pass if off, have some humor, or not make a big deal of it. Not speaking out to say that the comment or joke was hurtful, creates the impression that there was nothing offensive in the remarks, or that whoever did speak out was overly sensitive. Silence is the price paid to not be subjected to further repercussions.
Women have fought really hard to have a seat at the table as equals with men; to have pay as equals for the same work; to progress up the corporate or law firm ladders equally with men. They are not there yet. They need jobs just as much as men. Sometimes, given the number of households headed by a single woman, they need them more than men. When employed, they are often subjected to inappropriate comments and behavior, and risk losing their advancement or even their jobs by reporting it. It is not funny to suggest that all they need to be hired is a pretty face or body.
To quote the Supreme Court of Minnesota, which in 1984 quoted Plutarch in censuring a judge in Minnesota for comments made towards a woman prosecutor that were claimed by the judge to be made in good humor, “‘Tho’ boys thro’ stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest.’”
I received thanks from a number of people, and a couple of angry responses from male attorneys. One disputed there was a glass ceiling and accused me of grinding men under my feet based on a false narrative.
The more things change . . .
Sandra, a "Founding Mother" of Lawyers Club, has been in practice since 1970, is a past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and is of counsel at Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek.