Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Too Pretty to be a Lawyer

From Guest Blogger Catherine Dunham, Professor of Law, Elon University School of Law 

directory photo of Catherine Dunham

Too Pretty: An Essay

The #MeToo moment is powerful and encouraging to those of us who have worked in uncomfortable environments for years.  In my high school years, there were retail managers who made up reasons to brush behind you as you ran the cash register.  Then, there were the college food service job years which included outright sexual propositions from same age colleagues and groping opportunities disguised as rides home (“let me reach across and get that door for you.”). Fast forward to my first professional environment with new shoes and proper clothes.  I was asked to pick things up, to walk across the room, to sit with older male clients and keep them company as they waited for my boss.  I knew it was creepy but I perceived myself as someone without power.  Also, the men were much older and seemed harmless.  To me, they were sad and unthreatening but, in retrospect, they probably saw themselves as first rate opportunities for a young gal like me.  I spent eight post college years in subordinate professional roles and literally lost count of the times I was propositioned and of the men who made the overtures.  At one particularly low point, a supervisor who positioned himself as my mentor, some 20 years my senior, made a full-scale play for me after months of uncomfortable flirting.  The encounter ended with me saying, “please don’t do this – I need this job.”  Thank goodness, he relented.  I left that encounter thinking I need to get into a better professional position so as not be treated like the Gal Friday, possibly available for anything, for the rest of my career.  So, I went to Law School.  Certainly, after I became a lawyer, this would stop. 

Law school was an oasis in my professional story.  I had great male and female student colleagues and felt respected for my intellect and hard work.  This calm faded as I entered the profession, particularly private practice where I was called upon for coffee runs in depositions when I was the only women in the room.  I was mistaken for a paralegal, a court reporter, a clerk, with one time reprimanded by an out-of-county lawyer who demanded I remain behind the bar as the counsel tables were available only for licensed attorneys.  I was called “honey,” “sweetie,” and “girl” by a person on every rung of the legal professional ladder.  There were also appearance-based comments by judges and jurors and the occasional “you are just too pretty to be a lawyer.”  For the record, I am not that pretty.  I was simply female and young and offered an alternative version of what lawyers in my rural practice area were supposed to look like.  But because I was a young woman, comments on my physical appearance were to be considered compliments. 

I learned to manage this terrain.  I refused coffee runs, openly chastised lawyers who called me “honey,” and responded to the “too pretty” comments with a good Southern comeback like, “thank you – you are much too old to be looking at women my age.”  In fact, my small firm which was all male sans me remains the most gender balanced environment I have ever worked in.  My male superiors were excellent trial lawyers who valued hard work and intelligence without a care about how you looked, who you slept with, and whether you had a life outside of the office.  If you did well, you were celebrated.  If you screwed up, you heard about it and received some direction to keep you from making the same mistake again. The firm environment was fair, which made up for the constant inequities of the rural southern courts where I practiced.  Even so, those years were the time in my life when I was most often a woman among men and I got a glimpse of the ease the permeates a non-diverse world.  The language was not modern but it was not all menacing.  I had grown up with good people who used old-fashioned language to discuss women so learned not to be too quick to judge a gendered, albeit gracious, phrase.

I expected the switch to legal academia to expose me to the Holy Grail of gender equality.  Law professors were progressive and would create and propagate fair and balanced environments.  Wrong.  Twenty years after that first brush up behind the cash register, I was still deciding how to deal with a creep.  The only difference was the creep’s tactics.  Law academia has included being told by a Dean that I should “just go home, take care of my kids, and let my husband pay the bills.”  Another Dean promised to “take care of me” if I followed his lead on voting and retaliated when I did not.  And I once had a student tell me he could not attend my class because it was against his personal beliefs for a man to learn from a woman. I have seen women colleagues painted as “shrill,” “passive,” “too aggressive,” “brash,” and just overall not good enough to play in the big leagues of real law teaching.  I have sat in meetings trying to convince male colleagues that when viewing the teaching evaluations of women (and minority) faculty, particularly those who teach in predominantly male, white schools, you must account for the power differences, understanding that minority teachers do not get the benefit of the doubt.  And I have watched male colleagues protect their territory against female interlopers by appointing themselves the junior female colleague’s unofficial mentor then using that access to offer an ostensibly credible assessment of the junior faculty member to the rest of the faculty.  “I have really worked with her but she just isn’t getting there.” On this point, I have seen male colleagues praised for protecting the quality of instruction and women colleagues criticized for being territorial.  Territorial men are protectors and providers.  Territorial women are like my border collie when the repairman comes; a nasty bitch.

Why do we accept that women will deal with a certain amount of skirt chasing and “boys will be boys” behavior in the workplace?  Because we view men as more and view women as less. Our cultural views come through in our language, public and private, whether we know it or not.  For a woman of my age, raised in the culture of the American South, language was a complicated mix of the sweet and the cruel which offered few guiderails for my journey into professional adulthood. It took years for me to begin to challenge the words used to describe me and other women and the subtext beneath the conscious word choices of my peers.  I must admit that when I was first told I was too pretty for something, it read as a compliment.  It took time for me to understand that words which celebrated physical attractiveness when those traits are not relevant are words that diminish.

I have lovely memories of my Great Uncle holding my hand and telling me I looked like Snow White. However, a father, grandfather, or uncle could show the same affection with other words, words which do not connect physical appearance with value thus confounding those two things in a way that confuses young women on their personal value.  In truth, members of my own family told me I was too pretty to be a lawyer, telegraphing the cultural assumption that attractive women can get husbands so don’t need careers.  These messages sent me off into the world confused about my value and my role.  When our cultural rhetoric focuses on the physical attributes of women, we devalue women and invite the aggressors.  And we are all too pretty for that.

Catherine Dunham is a Professor of Law at Elon University School of Law where she teaches Civil Procedure, Civil Litigation, and Litigation Skills including Trial Practice.  She has also served as a trial analyst for several major news outlets, including NBC and CNN. In addition to procedural topics, Prof. Dunham’s scholarship explores social psychology and legal education, as well as topics related to gender equity and unconscious bias. Prof. Dunham is also prior recipient of the ABA Smyth-Gambrell Award for Teaching Professionalism.

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