Being Treated Differently

Humans will be humans. They will make terrible mistakes and bad choices. And sometimes, even “good” people make bad choices about the things that they say or choose to believe. These thoughts are often unconscious. Habitual, automatic thinking.

These automatic, programmed thoughts and ideas don’t make them a bad person it just means that they have bad thoughts that they haven’t examined through the lens of implicit bias….the jokes that people make or that people laugh at, the automatic judgments they make about others without questioning those judgments. The reason this matters is because those small actions, those unconscious reactions, and judgments are what are keeping so many segments of our society from moving forward. It’s not necessarily explicit hatred of another group but it is implicit bias masquerading in a prettier outfit.

Most of us have our own experiences being treated differently. I remember a few years ago, I was attending an early morning meeting where I was the only woman. As background, I have two white Shiba Inu pups and anyone who knows anything about dogs knows that a person who owns more than one Shiba Inu is a masochist. A masochist who loves having dog hair all over every article of clothing they have as well as in their icebox, refrigerator, underwear drawers, deli meat, and attics. I ALWAYS have dog hair on me.

On this particular day, I was wearing a long black pencil skirt. As I approached the breakfast bar to grab some coffee and a bagel, I felt a presence close behind me. Then I heard an older gentleman speaking in a low, private voice right into my ear, I think your dogs left you a present on your skirt this morning. Embarrassed and confused, I turned to look and saw that my backside was covered in the white hair of my beloved pups. As I thanked him and turned to leave the room to redress the situation he smiled and said you have no idea how much I wanted to wipe that off for you. You just have to let an old man have his fantasies.

WTF

I was immediately floored by his comment but I told myself He’s harmless. He’s a goofy old man who doesn’t think before he speaks…I was so shocked and startled and I wasn’t sure how to respond but I knew I didn’t want to make a scene at 7:00 o’clock in the morning in a room full of men.

After the meeting wrapped up, I went back to my office and tried to put the strange encounter out of my mind when I heard a knock at my door. I looked up and found the same old gentleman standing sheepishly in my doorway and waiting for me to notice him standing there awkwardly.   This time he was apologetic and thanked me for not getting upside with him, “just an old man,” and the “stupid things” that he says. He begged me to tell him if I was upset by what he had said. I brushed it off, told him it wasn’t a big deal, and we moved forward with the relationship and our days.

At the time, I found myself confirming that, if someone else had made the same comment, someone that I thought intended to be suggestive or probing, I would have reacted very differently. I was so focused on the individual and my knowledge that he didn’t mean anything by it….he was a kind and goofy old man with no malice. But why did that matter?

Through this work, I now realize that my response is part of a larger problem. I was focusing on the intent driving the individual to act that way, allowing space for his ignorance. People’s actions are just as important as their intentions. This gentleman did not intend to sexually harass me but the fact of the matter is, his conditioned thoughts and his words went there. He was thinking of me and my presence in a way that was not acceptable or safe. Even if he wasn’t seeking anything out of line, his words communicated to me that as a woman, I will always, in part, be seen as a sexual object. By brushing it off and not acknowledging the problem with his words, I was trading his discomfort for my own. To avoid making him feel uncomfortable by calling out his actions, I swallowed the pill and felt uncomfortable enough for both of us.

I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable but it was okay for me to be uncomfortable.

Why? Because my predominant thought was “Let’s not make this a big deal….I don’t want you to think I’m overly sensitive or can’t take a joke.”

But the truth was, it was a big deal. The fact that I can still recall that moment so vividly and point to it as one of the many moments when I knew I did not belong is significant.

Those thoughts did not serve me at the time and they are not serving any of us today. Anyone who acts or speaks in a way that indicates you are not an equal in the workplace is a problem. It is not acceptable to stifle our concerns in favor of not making waves.

Instead of retreating in fear of confrontation and drama, I could have made better decisions and clung to better thoughts.

I want to feel angry when I feel like I am being discriminated against. I do not want to feel like “It’s okay.” I want to be open to the discomfort that comes with taking a stand and speaking my peace. These are essential emotions. I don’t want to feel good about these circumstances. I don’t want to pretend to be okay to avoid these negative feelings.

In those moments, I want to believe: This is an opportunity for me to be honest and develop my relationship with this human. I am not a victim, I am simply shining a light on the situation.

I am not trading my truth for your comfort.

The fear-based, glossing-it-over approach is not working. What does work is looking at people’s actions and challenging those actions where you see them. Rather than focusing on the person’s intent and formulating thoughts from there, shift your focus to the larger goal. I can address this and be honest with this person about what I think about what they’ve said or done. Demeaning words and actions, even ones that lack explicit malice, are indicative of tired thinking that begs to be challenged. If we keep condoning the actions and focusing only on the intentions, we sacrifice diversity of thought. We sacrifice honesty in our relationships.

In my experience, none of the people I have worked with were intentionally sexist/racist/homophobic. However, in my experience, many of those colleagues made sexist/racist/homophobic comments. They did not harbor hate but they did harbor ignorance and unacknowledged bias.

As humans in this world, we all have a role to play in fostering the evolution of thought. While that might mean we have to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations and call out actions that we know are not mal-intended. Unless we’re honest with people about how their words or actions impact our abilities to show up, to stand up, to speak up, we will never make the progress that our world so desperately needs.

Having trouble finding the words to speak your truth? Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Develop the tools to stand up for yourself and those around you. Coach with me and let’s make this journey together.

We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers. The proof that one truly believes is in action – Bayard Rustin

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Blame

“Doodah made me do it.”

When I was a little girl, my brother had an imaginary friend named Doodah. Every time he would get into trouble for putting spiders down my shirt, he would insist that Doodah made him do it. Nothing was his fault when Doodah was around!

Not all of us had imaginary friends when we were kids but, like all other kids, we were never quick to take the blame for our actions.

We’ve all seen those kids in the airport. There you are waiting for your bags to plop off the carousel and while you wait, you watch two kids, worn out from travelling, annoying the goodness out of their harried parents and each other. Then, inevitably, one of those kids will haul off and smack the other one. Hard. While seemingly no one is watching.

Naturally, this results in an avalanche of tears and lots of drama punctuated by the aggressor-child insisting they “didn’t do anything”, indignant at the accusation. Such a comical and common display of our basic human instincts.

As adults, we like to tell ourselves that we have grown out of that propensity. Most of us would never outright deny doing something that we clearly did or that could easily be proven – hello, there are cameras EVERYWHERE!

But just because our logic-reasoning skills have improved and we know that it’s not prudent to lie about things that are likely memorialized on camera, it doesn’t mean we have gotten any better at accepting the results of our actions.

In fact, most of us have just gotten really good at dressing our blame up in prettier clothing: victim clothing.

Years ago, I found myself working in an environment where I did not fit in. I was one of very few women working in a role other than secretary. I was working in an environment where I felt completely isolated. I looked around and saw that the vast majority of my co-workers and nearly all of the organization’s leadership consisted white men from the same colleges and grad schools, even from the largely the same high schools. Most of them practiced the same religion if not the same parish. Most of them were in the same political party and most of them grew up in the same city. Lastly, the majority of them had the same family structure –  2-3 kids with a stay-at-home wife, even where those kids no longer lived at home.

Being alone on an island certainly takes its toll and while every organization comes with its own unique challenges, I quickly started to feel like there was no way I could be successful in that space. They will never take me seriously…they will never understand me or my life…I will always be different and they will always see me as a token: something to be regarded and retained but not taken seriously…My brain was filled with angry pronouncements about my workplace, its leaders, and my co-workers.   

I believed all of those thoughts and I carried them around with me every day. Every time I told myself that my complaints were disregarded, every time I thought my comments were bowled over, every time I felt I was interrupted more than the men, I clung to those thoughts – you will never take me seriously because I’m a woman….you can’t comprehend a woman with a brain and an opinion…you will never treat me like a peer because you don’t believe I am your equal. 

Over time, I found myself having screaming matches with them in my head. If I saw a member of the leadership team in the hall, you could bet I was yelling at them in my head, telling them they were sexist and old school and on and on and ON…Every challenge I encountered in that place was cast in a veil of sexism and anger. It was exhausting.

Now look, I am not saying that any of these thoughts couldn’t have been true. Maybe some of those guys were sexist. Maybe they lacked the skills and experience to treat me as an equal. Maybe it never would change. I don’t know and it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because I realized that I could not control them. I could not change them. I could not make them into the kind of men I would respect. They were grown adults who were entitled to act and treat me in any way that they chose. I realized that the only thing I could control was myself and my thoughts and at that point my thoughts were making me miserable. I trudged through each day unhappy, grouchy, unsatisfied and disappointed. It was a terrible way to practice.

I started working through my thoughts and endeavored to re-cast the situation. I had to let go of my anger that these people were falling short of my expectations for good leadership. I started focusing on the fact that my angry thoughts about the situation were making me angry and bitter. No one was negatively affected by my diatribes but me. Eventually I left. To put it more accurately, I RAN out of that place as fast as I could.

Later when I would think back to that time in my life I would find myself bubbling with anger. I blamed them and judged them for my leaving. I blamed them for my unhappiness. If only they had been willing to act in accordance with their values. . . if only they were capable of accepting their short-comings . . . if only they weren’t so freaking insistent upon taking care of their own…if only they were willing to accept different points of view as valuable… I had nothing good to say and every time it came up in conversation or I thought about it, I would find myself fuming with rage and indignation.

That’s when I realized that I was making myself a victim. I knew who the villain was – and so did everyone who made the mistake of asking me about my prior employer! That made me the victim. Yikes. I never thought of myself as a victim or a blamer and the realization stung.

As I thought about it more, I realized that I was blaming the male partners and leadership for all my unhappiness there. I was blaming them for me leaving. I got to work picking through those thoughts and one stuck out in particular: I will never be successful here because I am not one of them. I believed that down to my core. But then I started to probe it. Was that true? Were there really no women there that were successful? Nope. My thought wasn’t entirely factual.

There were women there who had found some form of success and happiness. They worked a lot more than I did. They made less waves. They were willing to “go along to get along.” They worked hard and didn’t make time for indignation – it’s not that they didn’t see it; they just didn’t spend energy on it. That’s when it clicked for me. I was wrong. I could have been successful there and I could have become one of them. I chose not to. I chose not to make those same sacrifices and I chose to use my voice. I chose to leave in honor of my principles and values. They didn’t force me to leave. They weren’t the villain and I wasn’t the victim. I made a choice to leave. I didn’t have to make that choice and no one forced me to do it.

Now when I think about my time with that organization, I am filled with pride and sadness instead of anger and indignation. I am proud that I clung to my values and I am sad that women are still fighting to be treated fairly and equally. I’m no longer villainizing their failures – that is for them to sort out. I made a choice that was all my own and I was not a victim to some faceless villain.

Could I have stayed there and found happiness? Sure. It would have required a lot more time working through those thoughts. I could have found a way to be happy. But here’s the thing. I didn’t WANT to feel good about what I seeing and experiencing. I did not WANT to be okay with that environment. That was also my choice. I chose to be unhappy during my time there. Life is not meant to be 100% happiness all the time. My experience at that organization was my time for struggle, challenges, growth and sadness. That, my friends, is how life works and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cheers!


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Toxic Work Environments

This morning, I was thinking of some of the more challenging experiences in my legal career. A few of my favorite little gems from myself and my clients:

Put your big girl panties on and figure it out (a first year associate trying to ask questions to the assigning partner).

You are just sour you didn’t get appointed to the Board (regarding being underpaid in comparison to male counterparts).

Sometimes people say the wrong things to the wrong people (from a managing partner a female attorney who just raised a sexual harassment complaint).

If you were [a male partner] I would fire you for this (after questioning why a male co-worker was getting paid nearly twice what she was making).

The practice of law is challenging and, for better or worse, the practice of law usually requires interactions with some very *challenging* humans.

Part of my work is helping women get to a place of self-examination–thinking on purpose and recognizing how those thoughts impact the results we create in our life. That work typically requires a hard conversation with one’s self about whether a thought is serving you.

I hate my body becomes I’m learning to love my body.

My boss is a jerk becomes I have a boss.

I hate working at this firm becomes I have a job at a firm.

Those subtle shifts have tremendous impact how we feel, how we show up, and ultimately on our reality.

But what about circumstances that you don’t want to feel good about?

What about that day you are sitting in that office having the most difficult conversation of your life, challenging leadership for an explanation why your male counterpart gets paid so much more than you and instead of listening to you, he threatens to fire you for raising the issue?

That, dear readers, is not a situation any of us would want to feel good about.

When we encounter these types of challenges, we don’t want to shift to a better thought. In truth, sometimes these experiences feel more like an out of body experience. We slip out of our bodies to watch these dumpster fires from a distance.

After these experiences, we don’t want to have flowery thoughts about it. We want to be angry. We want to feel indignant. We want to truly own the experience of being treated unfairly. To being ignored and belittled. Treated like a child.

Where do you go from there?

For any experience in our life, we have the power to decide:

How do I want to feel about this? What do I want to think about this?

We have choices to make.

What would my future self tell me to do? How would she tell me to show up?

While we truly believe that we have been belittled and treated unfairly, it is not productive to set up camp with those thoughts. It didn’t matter whether it’s true. Those thoughts created a spiral of unproductive anger, bitterness, and resentment.

Those feelings drive off on indignant rants and whining, complaining, and passive aggression. Those thoughts truly drive us to act like a bratty child throwing a tantrum.

You must challenge your angry thoughts and examine the impact each one has one you — how you feel, how you act from that space and the result that it gets you. Find one that sparks progress instead of combustion.

You have to find a thought that propels you to that vision you want for yourself.

In these situations, my clients want to show up strong and confident. They want to be truthful and unbiased and not cover up the experience.

They don’t want to spew hatred about their firms or their leadership; they want to shine the light. They want to be cool, calm, collected and HONEST.

A mantra we often discuss in our sessions is: This is my truth and this is what happened to me and I am not going to hide or sugarcoat it for anyone.

For most of us, those thoughts create confident, honesty, and strength. It makes us feel like a champion for women. When I have applied that mantra to some of my less than rosy experiences of my career, that thought made me feel a little bitter and indignant but not in a way that made me want to burn it all down. In a way that wanted me to open up about it.

Most of us ultimately walk way from toxic work environments. We do not transform them. We do not change their mindset. The firms rarely see any err in their ways.

So many of us have experiences like those above and we take it. We put our heads down and keep trucking. If we stop to ask ourselves – how do I want to feel about this? How do I want to show up in this moment? In 10 years, how will I wish I had shown up?

It’s easier to take the lumps as they come and just keep going.

It’s part of the job.

It’s just the way it is.

I will never change them.

Those thoughts keep us stuck in a world where things like this keep happening. Those thoughts are safe. They allow you to avoid the difficult conversation.

What would it be like if we all chose to speak our truth and be honest about our experiences? No matter what the cost. Would we be farther along than we are?

Don’t feel entitled to anything you didn’t sweat and struggle for. — Marian Wright Edelman

If you are angry with what you are seeing in your work environment, how about some FREE support? Reserve one of my three weekly mini-sessions before they are all gone!


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Living Authentically

As women in the legal industry, we have the unfortunate “opportunity” to be treated differently. Sexually suggestive comments, demeaning remarks about women in general, getting mistaken for a secretary, being compensated unfairly, just to name a few. One recent study concluded that sexual harassment in the legal industry is at epidemic proportions. Sadly, I have never met a woman in the legal industry who has not experienced some of these challenges.

Yet, despite our ability to clearly articulate ourselves and zealously defend others, so many of my clients and colleagues shy away from defending themselves.

Why is that? 

Many of my clients relate stories to me about their work environment that remind me of my experiences in an abusive relationship. It is difficult to deny that sometimes our work relationships are not all that much different than controlling and toxic romantic relationships.

What is also similar about the two is that in both instances, we have the opportunity to stand up for ourselves, set boundaries, and re-write our story but many of us decline to do so.

If you are living in a work environment that you believe is “toxic”, now is the time to take back your agency. Erase the victim mindset and start taking control of your life. This will likely require you to have some uncomfortable conversations, it might require boundaries, and it most certainly will require you to start re-thinking your life.

We cannot overcome challenging relationships if we believe the relationship is happening to us and we just have to accept it.

When it comes to unhealthy romantic relationships, we are often quick to judge those women who stay too long or “put up with” too much. But how is staying in an abusive and toxic working environment any different?

Whether it is our personal life or our professional life, we have the power to make choices.

We get to decide what is acceptable for us. We get to decide whether to stay in the relationship or not. If you believe that your boss treats you poorly or you feel taken advantage of, silence in that aspect of your life is akin to tacit approval of such mistreatment in your personal life. So why is it that we are so quick to accept things professionally that we would never accept personally?

Because we are wed to faulty beliefs:

This is just the way it is

I can’t change it, why make a fuss?

I have to take it, he gives me all my work

If I say something, they will think I’m being emotional or a complainer

These thoughts are riddled with problems.

First, they are neither true nor factual. They are simply opinions. Opinions that form the basis for resignation and silence. We treat them as absolute facts but they are not. They are things we have chosen to believe.

Second, those beliefs justify our willingness to accept treatment that is not consistent with who we are. We end up pretending to be someone we are not, accepting things we are not actually okay with. We end up lying to all those around us; giving them a false impression of what’s important to us.

Third, you are sacrificing your values and dignity in an attempt to control how others think of you.

I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want to be seen as a complainer.

You are being silent because you are trying to manipulate how others see and think of you. This never works. What I often see happening is that eventually the façade becomes too heavy to bear and women abruptly quit their jobs with little to no explanation given. The firms are either shocked or completely confused by the result and any opportunity for positive change and honesty is eclipsed.

Make a commitment to be authentic in all or your relationships.

If we continue to believe that the legal environment is “just not for us”, we will continue to drop out of the fight without putting on our boxing gloves. If you believe you have been mistreated or you believe that there is room for improvement in your working relationships, commit to having those uncomfortable conversations. You never know, you might foster change for the next generation of women in your position.

Promise yourself that when and if you leave your firm there will be no confusion about your rationale for leaving.

There will be no confusion because you will have voiced your concerns and thoughts openly and honestly during your tenure. The reasons for your departure will have all been clearly laid out for them already.

When we are silent about our struggles in the legal industry we handicap ourselves and we allow bad behavior to continue.

Find your voice and start living authentically, it’s so much more fun than the alternative.

Not sure how to have those difficult conversations? Get some free support today. The silence isn’t worth it.


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