“Women tend to think that it’s needed to shrink themselves to seem non-intimidating. Shrinking does nothing but delay your voice from being heard and taken seriously.”
-Niya Allen-Vatel, Career Global
The most overt display of sexism I have encountered as a professional occurred during my first trial. As a young associate, I was reassigned from second chair to lead counsel on the eve of trial. The insecurity and anxiety I felt cannot be emphasized enough, and the palpable glee of opposing counsel when they learned a “baby attorney” was trying the case at the last minute certainly did not help.
The first day of trial happened to be the day after the Oscars. The older male client representative (let us call him “Mark”) for the opposing party greeted me with wandering eyes and a bizarre comment about having seen me on the red carpet “in a pink dress.” I was taken aback and mostly focused on the case at hand, and, regretfully, I masked my discomfort and merely laughed in response. Throughout the entirety of the trial, Mark referred to me as “Miss Ashley” and continued with the wandering eyes and inappropriate staring. His tone continued to be patronizing and demeaning, and I continued to respond with smiles and nervous laughter. Internally I grew increasingly vexed by a level of blatant sexism I had never quite encountered.
The night before the final day of trial, I reviewed my closing argument. I had a general outline of points and felt confident my arguments were clear and convincing. Part of our argument involved requesting civil penalties (or punitive damages) based on a series of pre-litigation decisions made by Mark. I prepared a short section addressing these decisions. As I made my way through my closing the following day, the anger I had suppressed all week began bubbling to the surface. I went off script, and in a calm, collected manner, I hammered down on the inconsistencies inherent in his testimony. I highlighted his bias and personal stake in the outcome, which I had carefully weaved into my questioning. What I had planned to discuss for only a few minutes stretched into twenty or thirty as I delivered legal punch after legal punch; I was on a high. I knew I had nailed it when Mark slowly turned his chair 180 degrees to stare me down. His attempt at intimidation made me better. It fueled me. When I was satisfied my off-script argument had done the job, my face betrayed me as I turned to him and raised my eyebrows with a tiny smile, as if to say, “Surprise.” At the conclusion of closing arguments, Mark turned to me, bewildered and defeated, and muttered, “You’re a funny girl.” To which my incredibly supportive (and witty) male co-counsel responded, “It’s International Women’s Day.”
Two hours later, the jury returned a verdict in our favor… and awarded civil penalties. Mark stared ahead, packed up his belongings, and walked out of the courtroom without a word. I could not wipe the smile off my face.
The takeaway of my experience was this: we are free to combat gender bias in creative ways. One man saw me as the sum total of my appearance and gender but overlooked and underestimated the sacrifices and grueling work it has taken to get to where I am. In response, I demonstrated I am strong, smart, capable, determined, persuasive, thoughtful, analytical, and self-controlled. Mark’s comments were not the first demeaning comments I have heard from older males in my profession, and they certainly will not be the last. My go-to reaction is still to calmly and coolly confront the speaker head on, and I will continue to do so. There are times where a verbal response may not be feasible or appropriate. In those moments, we still have the power to push back by simply being who we are. If you find yourself insulted as to your professional capabilities and reduced to your appearance, combat it by being everything you are. Prove to opposing counsel their client’s claims are baseless. Refuse to budge until you get right settlement. Draft the perfect motion. Use the seemingly innocuous comments and blatant insults as fuel to become a better advocate – not only for your clients, but also for yourself.
By no means am I the only female professional consistently encountering implicit and explicit gender bias. Today, I am proud to be part of a firm that encourages women to speak up and speak out about our shared struggles, challenges and triumphs. Since joining Tyson & Mendes I have been astounded by the sheer volume of female leaders. From the top down, our partners, team leaders, and associates create an environment where hard work is rewarded and victories are celebrated for all. Male and female, collectively we work together to advance women in the legal field by encouraging open dialogue.
Women, whether confronting gender bias in the workplace head on, crushing the opposition like a boss, or both, be confident you are here because of the choices you have made and the values, qualities, and gifts you inherently possess. Be unwavering. Be proud. Above all, be unstoppable. In the words of Tyson & Mendes’ first equity partner Mina Miserlis, see yourself “first and foremost as an attorney who also happens to be a woman.” And see yourself as a woman who also happens to be a boss.