It’s time to go back to 1972 or so and start the Women’s Liberation movement up all over again. We need it.
A client, who was sexually harassed at her old firm, tells me a new fear haunts her – that her “reputation” will be transported via gossip to wherever she goes next. I asked what that “reputation” would be – I mean, how do you get a reputation for being harassed by some clown at a law firm?
“Well, they might think I’m difficult, or unstable, or a trouble-maker,” she explained.
That makes me want to scream – particularly because she might be right: Some sort of reputation along those lines might stick to her, and it might get around at her new firm. When you’re a woman at a law firm – or a woman, period – there are times when it seems you just can’t win.
Another client – a young partner at a biglaw firm – told me she’d been harassed, but stated flatly, “you can’t report it – they’ll just push you out.” I asked her what she did instead. “Oh, you’re supposed to be able to handle it. Tell him to fuck off, or whatever.”
That was upsetting to hear. She delivered it with gusto – and I wanted to believe she really meant it, had the fortitude to say “fuck off” to the guy slipping his hand up her thigh, then briskly smooth her skirt, and move on. But is it really that easy?
Therapists love empathy exercises – it’s kind of our business, in a nutshell. So let’s go ahead and imagine the reality of sexual harassment – having someone you have no interest in sexually or otherwise, someone you work with or work for, pawing over your body at a firm function. My guess is it would unsettle me more than I’d like to admit. And how about going into the office the next day and trying to work with the guy – especially if he’s senior? Could you just “handle it”? Or would the whole unpleasant business get under your skin, leave you seething, angry and humiliated and wanting someone to listen to what happened to you and do something about it? And what would you do with the thought that he’s probably doing this to other people, and getting away with that, too?
Reporting harassment doesn’t sound like much fun either: Walking through the distasteful details of the incident with his bosses, who are also your bosses, then inevitably getting labelled “high-strung,” “unstable,” or “a trouble-maker.” Then getting “pushed out.”
Another client, who reported harassment at her firm, is living through the experience of being “pushed out” right now. Suddenly her last review wasn’t so good – despite the fact that the previous two were positively glowing. Suddenly, she finds herself the focus of whispering and gossip and the recipient of cold shoulders from colleagues. Suddenly, she’s working with a headhunter, in a tough legal job market. Anything to get out of there.
Okay – time for a quick reality check. So far, this column appears to be headed in the familiar direction of venting quite a bit of anger about the unfairness of being a woman in biglaw – which is, in fact, precisely where it is headed. But before I bounce merrily down that well-worn pike, I want to make it clear to you, Dear Reader, that I’m not a total naïf with regard to the vicissitudes of man- and womankind. I’ve grasped the reality that all women aren’t saintly, nor all men the embodiment of evil (as well as the tangentially related fact that, on occasion, gay people harass people too.) It’s true: Women do sometimes falsely accuse men of sexual misconduct, and the women who commit that hateful act are mostly a bit difficult and unstable, and – to put it bluntly, nuts.
In fact, I have worked with two cases in which male clients were traumatized by being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by mentally unstable women. Yes, that happens. My clients went home with disturbed women who subsequently made accusations that weren’t true. In both cases, the incidents took place in college, involved people in their early 20’s, and alcohol was a factor. And in both cases the accusers were women who most likely had abuse in their own backgrounds – based on their statements – as well histories of serious mental health disorders.
In both cases, the men were young and sexually inexperienced. Confronted with the charges, both men found themselves instinctively apologizing, which led to issues with their credibility down the line. Both men were left wary and defensive after this experience, especially around expressing desire or romantic interest towards women (and if you put yourself in their shoes, it isn’t hard to see why.)
So yes, of course there are two sides to every story. Some women are a bit crazy, and they falsely accuse men of sexual misconduct. You’d have to be a bit crazy – maybe very crazy – to do something that cruel and malicious. But, as I’ve said – it happens, often with traumatic consequences.
However, there are few points worth making about crazy women lodging false accusations, especially as concerns accusations of sexual harassment in the world of biglaw:
First – there are obviously many many more women victimized by sexual misconduct each year in the world, and in this country and yes, in biglaw, than there are men falsely accused of such misconduct. That’s because there are – one may logically conclude – vastly more horny, inappropriate guys out there than there are nutty, unstable women of the sort who would level false accusations (a quick, sobering glance at the statistics concerning sexual crimes worldwide should suffice to establish this point.)
Second – this phenomenon (harassing men vastly outnumbering crazy women) may be attributed to the fact that, while most people around the world agree that it takes a crazy woman to accuse a man falsely of sexual misconduct, it is not universally recognized as crazy worldwide to force oneself on a woman in an inappropriate sexual manner. In many parts of the world such behavior is taken for granted (which is of course, horrifying, but that’s the sad state of things.)
Third – the “harassing men vastly outnumbering crazy women” axiom fits particularly well in the world of biglaw, a universe populated by a significant number of highly educated, professionally successful adult women, and a perhaps an equally-significant number of sexually inappropriate, fratboy-ish men. Many biglaw firms are over-grown boys’ clubs – they only opened their doors to accept women a few decades ago, and it shows. As a result, as a woman, you have to be a pretty tough cookie – and rather non-crazy – i.e., at least moderately stable and level-headed – just to find yourself making it into and surviving within, the biglaw world. That also shows. The fact is, I’ve never run into a single case where I’ve doubted a woman client’s report of an incident of sexual harassment in biglaw – and I’ve heard a great many such stories.
Okay, you might protest, I’m a therapist – I’m supposed to believe my clients. And I also believed the men who reported being falsely accused. But there’s something about an educated professional woman complaining about sexual harassment at her workplace – a place she’s fought long and hard to be – that’s just plain compelling on the face of it. They don’t sound like liars or crazy people – they sound like professionals who have had it up to here with being harassed.
Nonetheless, as a woman lodging such a complaint, you open yourself up for labels like “difficult” and “unstable” and “a trouble maker,” with the clear insinuation that you’re a bit nuts – in other words, that you’re the sort of crazy woman who might make a false accusation of sexual misconduct.
The most notorious example of this type of attack on a woman came when David Brock, the conservative GOP attack-writer (now an openly gay liberal Democratic attack-writer) smeared Anita Hill for claiming she’d been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. Brock labelled Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” He’s since apologized for that bit of unprincipled calumny, and admitted it was baseless and wrong, but by then it was too late – he’d fed into the terrible stereotype that each and every woman who reports harassment is somehow crazy – and a liar.
In the case of Hill, the nutty/slutty formula seemed entirely misplaced. She was a thirty-five year old honors grad from Yale Law School, and a lawyer at the EEOC, who worked for Thomas. She didn’t come across as nuts in the least.
Instead of nutty or slutty, Hill mostly appeared courageous. It must have been embarrassing, to say the least, to be in her position. Uncomfortable. Awkward. But clearly necessary, to prevent the nightmare of watching a man who harassed her – and purportedly other women at their workplace – win a seat on the Supreme Court.
Thomas and his right-wing character assassins did their best to perpetuate the old cliché – hence Thomas’ friend Brock’s “nutty and slutty” slur. But it didn’t really stick, not even back in 1991 (at least not with strident feminists like me.) Even if Hill had an axe to grind with Thomas, it was a stretch to accept that she was nuts enough to take things that far. This wasn’t a mentally unbalanced woman at a college party with Jaegermeister shots and kegs of Coors Light. This was an attorney at a federal agency, putting her career on the line.
It seemed then – and continues to seem now – far more likely Hill was telling the truth.
Another empathy exercise: Contemplate what that truth would look like. Imagine you work for Clarence Thomas – and he’s coming onto you like a freight train. You might be able to grit your teeth and bear it while you’re working for him. But when he’s up for a Supreme Court seat? You’d have to open your mouth, right? And that would be a damned courageous decision.
Now imagine Clarence Thomas is innocent – has never harassed you. How likely is it that you would invent the entire thing? Does that seem like anything a serious, highly educated, ambitious – and so far as anyone can tell, entirely non-crazy – lawyer would do?
If the harassment did actually happen, Hill was opening herself up for more abuse. And if it didn’t happen and she was making the whole thing up, she was still opening herself up for abuse, and reaping no obvious benefit in the process. She’d have to be crazy. But Anita Hill, despite the right-wing’s determined efforts to slander her reputation, didn’t seem crazy. She still doesn’t seem crazy. Not nutty. Not slutty. Not either. Not in the least.
My client, who reported harassment at her firm, also doesn’t seem nutty or slutty, but she’s facing the same tired stereotypes, and she’s fleeing the firm where the harassment took place. She sees no other option, since the firm treated her situation like an awkward nuisance. They acted put out by her complaint, dutifully went through the motions of pretending to care, then swept the whole thing under the rug. The offender – who behaved horrendously – got away with a slap on the wrist. That’s pretty standard. The takeaway seems to be that my client’s a little unstable…a troublemaker…a bit nuts….in other words, crazy.
Just to review: As a woman in biglaw, you might get sexually harassed. And if you complain about it, someone will likely attempt to dismantle your case by attempting to depict you as crazy. That’s the state of things.
But wait – there’s more. Aside from the harassment issue, let’s talk about how other persistent, unfair stereotypes make it difficult to be a woman at a biglaw firm.
For example, many of my female clients complain they get stuck with the “housework” at the firm – the work that isn’t glamorous, but requires “people skills.” If there’s a job that involves organizing lots of complicated low-level stuff, supervising lots of juniors – you can bet the woman gets that, since women are so sensitive and willing to listen.
Then there’s the general complaint, which I hear all the time, that women get passed over for partner, or chased away from the firm before it becomes an issue. The men at the most frat-like firms essentially chase the women away with their boorish behavior, only back-tracking now and then to make sure they keep at least a few female associates past fifth year, maybe elevate one or two to of counsel or non-equity partner, or even appoint one a token equity partner – someone who won’t make trouble, for appearance’s sake.
On the surface, if a woman does make partner – real partner – the sacrifices are the same as a man’s – i.e., you never see your family. But then that double standard goes into play: a man is allowed to never see his wife or kids, but with a woman…it looks weird – it feels weird – if she has kids and then never sees them.
So one final thought experiment, to drive home the pervasiveness of female stereotypes in biglaw. Let’s pretend a woman made partner and simply behaved exactly like a man in the same position. Here goes:
Mary decides she’s obsessed with making partner. She logs insane hours – 3,000 or more per year. Her work is good, and she’s like a machine – just keeps cranking it out. That gets the firm’s attention.
Mary has a husband at home – someone she met in college – but when she goes out to bars with clients and people from the firm, she gets drunk, grabs the asses of cute young guys, and brags about her sexual conquests. “I’d bang him,” is her catch-phrase, always greeted with laughter – although she usually means it. Mary’s a “team player,” popular with the other associates (at least the female ones, in our topsy-turvy imaginary world) and some powerful partners.
When one of the young men who’s caught her attention – a first year associate – complains to his partner mentor that Mary ran her hand over his crotch one night when they were alone in her office and said she’d really like to fuck him, the firm’s senior management rushes in to protect her. Mary’s a rising star at the firm, she earns them good money and the clients like her. They’ve got her back. The junior furthermore says Mary had liquor on her breath at the time – she was tipsy after entertaining clients, which isn’t unusual. In any case the junior’s an annoying, uptight trouble-maker. He isn’t a super-star in terms of billable hours – and Mary is. The first year is not-so-subtly pushed out of the firm. Not a team-player.
Years pass. Mary has two children. After the first kid arrives, her husband quits his job to be a stay-home dad. She hardly notices. He never earned much, and she just made partner.
By the time kid number two hits first grade, Mary’s notorious for seducing young male associates. There’s a fling with another married partner, too – or maybe it was a hook-up – and she rather notoriously got jiggy with a handsome contract attorney. Fed up, her husband files for divorce. After a nasty law suit, he gets custody and a fat settlement. In response, Mary cranks the partying up a notch, then impulsively marries a guy twenty-five years her junior – she’s in her fifties, he’s in his twenties. He’s an intern at some entertainment magazine, but seems happy to live as a kept boy. Mary has another kid with him (remember, this is a thought experiment.) By the time he gives birth, she’s already sleeping with another associate at the office, a third-year she’s taken under her wing ’cause she likes his attitude.
The second husband puts up with Mary’s antics – passive-aggressively exacting revenge by spending thousands on spa visits and Prada suits. Mary snaps out of it and splits with him, soothing any upset by buying herself a deluxe SoHo bachelorette pad and a vintage Porsche Carrera. At this point, she’s hooking up with a string of young guys, and barely knows her kids from the first marriage. She’s hardly even met the offspring from the second one. Rumor has it there’s a coke habit.
Okay – end of thought experiment. You get the picture? Mary’s acting like an out of control male biglaw partner.
What’s deeply dysfunctional about a biglaw partnership – the sacrifice of a meaningful personal relationship or family for money and career – is precisely what makes it next to impossible for a woman to succeed at playing that game.
What’s totally dysfunctional about society in general – the fact that male biglaw partners are somehow not expected to maintain meaningful personal relationships or healthy families – is what makes it possible for a man to succeed in biglaw.
That’s the double-standard – and so long as that’s the way biglaw is played, it might as well remain a men’s club. A woman would have to be crazy to join.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. It’s called Bad Therapist: A Romance. I guarantee pure reading pleasure…
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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
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