FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

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Story Slam—Part Two

In Essays on July 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm

july2013-slam-web1By Kate Gace Walton

Note: Some of you kindly asked me to share the tale I told at Thursday night’s Bainbridge Island Story Slam. It was told on stage, no notes allowed—but I have reconstructed it here, as best as I could.

This time the theme was ‘Summer Jobs’; last time, for the theme ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ I described my most memorable ‘Night Shift.’ 

When I was in college, one summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park. I worked in a gift shop at Old Faithful.

We sold a lot of different souvenirs, but it’s the bedazzled sweatshirts I remember best. Sequined wolves, howling at a sequined moon.

Tragically, our uniforms were gingham. Blue gingham blouses—and aprons. The only thing missing was the yellow brick road.

My co-workers were all fellow college students and retirees, and we lived in a dorm above the store. In what I can only explain as some sort of crowd control scheme, we were all mixed in together—the students and the retirees. My roommate, for example, was a competitive bowler, actually named Flo, and I remember: on those beautiful Yellowstone nights, with no city lights to dim the stars, I could look down from my bunk…and see her teeth…sitting on the table next to the bed.

Most of the college students were out there to hike. We’d leave as soon as our shifts were over and return just in time to start work again. And, if we’re being frank here, many of the college students were also out there to, um, hike a little bit of the Appalachian trail as they say. So, our hours were erratic. We’d come home late; we’d oversleep. We were a constant source of irritation to our more mature roommates.

It might have all boiled over—these tensions between the students and the retirees—except for one strong, unifying force: the tourists.

Now, many of you have probably been to Old Faithful. Some of you may even have a wolf-bedazzled sweatshirt. But when I say “tourists,” I’m not talking about you.

I’m  talking about the people who put their toddler on the back of a bison to take a photo…

I’m talking about the people who came into the store and asked, “In what season do the elk turn into moose?”…

I’m talking about the people who asked,  “What time do you turn the geysers on?”…

It was these people, these tourists, who inspired us to set aside our differences and come together around a plan. And here is what we did: there was a wagon wheel hanging on the wall of the employee pub. We fixed it to the top of a post which we placed about twenty yards away from Old Faithful, just behind the boardwalk where people stand to watch.

And just as Old Faithful was about to blow, two of my colleagues—in their blue gingham and their aprons—started to turn that wheel, very slowly at first…and then faster and faster. And only when Old Faithful erupted in all her glory did they stop, slumped in seeming exhaustion. The crowd cheered. There were a few wry, knowing smiles…but honestly not nearly as many as you’d like to see.

I’ve been a part of many team-building exercises over the years, but nothing compares to the day we turned the geyser on. And the best part, for me anyway, was the rumor that it was all Flo’s idea.

On Business Travel

In Essays on January 10, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: Most Work Stew contributors share their thoughts in the form of essays, but this piece happened to take shape as a Q&A. The back story: I used to have a job that required near-constant travel, and (as my questions will no doubt reveal) I grew to dislike being on the road for work. In large part to temper my own grumpiness on the subject, I wanted to learn how other people experience business travel, and frequent flyer Christine de Brabander gamely agreed to weigh in. 

1. You spend large stretches of time traveling for business. How do you feel about these trips: are they part and parcel of your ‘real life,’ or do they seem in some way like detours, or departures, from your real life?

Christine de BrabanderThey do not feel like detours at all. This is my real life. I have a job that involves travel. I have a family that works around the travel. I get comments from other women sometimes about my kids recognizing me, or questions about who’s babysitting the kids or how the family deals with all the travel. I’ve asked male colleagues if they get this, and they’ve reacted with quizzical looks and kindhearted responses. They haven’t experienced this, and seem to appreciate that it would make life more complex if they did.

As a wife and mother, there is still an expectation out there that home is my real life, and the travel is a distraction from that path. Men are road warriors, and women are still called upon to be the auxiliary heroines of the home front. And I understand that, because when I am home I definitely feel that the focal point each day is that time from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM when I make everything tick: I prepare dinner, make sure the homework gets done, the kitchen is cleaned up, baths are taken, stories are read, and bedtime is observed. It’s very important, and I treasure it. I can see why people would call that my ‘real life’ and wonder how can I step away from that so regularly. I ‘get’ the question.

On the day before I travel, and up until I am walking out the door, there is an undeniable weight pulling me down for not putting all of those expectations first. That is when I question myself. But by the time I reach the airport I am walking as comfortably in that traveling life as I do in my home life. I think that if the guilt followed me on the travel, if I couldn’t shed it, then it would definitely feel like a departure from ‘myself’ (which, I think, might be what you mean by my ‘real life’). But it feels as much ‘me’ to be traveling as it does to be at home. I really embrace that autonomous part of myself who parachutes into assorted cities anywhere in the world and figures it all out. I can commute solo on trains in Japan where there are not even any English characters to sound out, repeating to myself, for instance, to get off at “barn door + curvy A + spaceship symbol” station.

My lifestyle gives my daughters a different view of how gender roles work. It opens their minds to opportunities they may not have recognized if I didn’t travel. And–bonus!–it has made my husband a much more involved father. He has a great relationship with the girls. Sure, he doesn’t take care of things the same way I would. They’ve eaten a lot of frozen pizza and ramen soup and Fruity Pebbles for dinner, and the girls have had to entertain themselves more. They miss me, but they’ve also confessed that they like the ‘dad time’ they get when I’m gone. I actually think that the forced ‘Mr. Mom’ time with our daughters over the past 13 years has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve given my husband.

I think perhaps he sees my travel as more of a detour for him than I do for me, a departure from his real life. He does not shape-shift as easily and completely into chief caretaker as I do into world traveler, but he makes it work. Each person in our family has a critical contribution to making it work. I am incredibly thankful to have a family so generous in spirit.

2. When you are alone in an airplane or a hotel room, how do you feel? Lonely? Liberated? Both? Neither?

On travel, when I’m through at the office, I am done with my work for the day. I don’t have to go back to my hotel and cook or clean. I can go to restaurants and eat whatever kind of food I choose. Even seafood, which nobody at home likes! There is no drama from somebody else’s day to deal with, and nobody’s mood impacting mine. The TV is off. It’s quiet. I can read a book or go online, whatever I feel like doing. All of that is incredibly liberating.

But I get lonely for people after a few days. I miss getting hugs. Touch is important, and totally lacking during business travel. Even beyond touch, I miss looking into eyes and faces that I love. It’s funny, how hungry you get to look at people you love. The faces of co-workers or strangers don’t have the same effect. I don’t think I realized that before I began to travel, how seeing people you love feeds the soul in a vital way.

The FaceTime app has helped a lot. Voice-only calls can be awkward and stilted.  But add the visual, and you are there with the person having a conversation. My youngest daughter and I ‘hang out’ on travel evenings, toting our ipods as we go about what we’re doing, and just chit-chatting as if I were there in the house with her. Last night she had a headache, and I read to her for about 40 minutes while she curled up on the couch near the woodstove. We’re always in the middle of a book together, even though she’s 13 and an avid reader herself. I bring our book along with me, and if we are in the mood then we read, just like when I’m at home.

3. Do you have any interest in exploring your destination when you’re traveling for business–or is it more about enduring your time there and getting home as quickly as possible?

I get very excited to check out a new place, or to go back and see ‘old friend’ sites that I didn’t know I’d get to visit again, such as the Sanjusangendo (Temple of 1000 Buddhas) in Kyoto, or the Duomo in Milan. I have seen some of the most beautiful places–bicycling on Mackinac Island, marveling at the rebuilding of Dresden, dining al fresco on chili crab and fresh mango under the stars in Singapore, or visiting an art museum in Rosario, Argentina. I think it would be a shame to travel and simply endure the time away to rush back home. I’m away regardless, and it doesn’t serve my family any better for me to sit and pine for them, and come home in joyless exhaustion. I have been given one lifetime to experience beauty and to learn about other ways of life. I can use those encounters to instill in my kids an appreciation for other people and cultures, and a healthy curiosity for how others experience the world.

4. I used to travel a lot and there was something about hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet that made me think hard about my choices. My ‘reasoning’ (such as it was) would go something like this: “If my plane crashes and I die, it will be because I was heading to this meeting for such-and-such a client. Is that how I want to go?” Do you ever have such thoughts?

I have briefly entertained such thoughts. But I’m very logical, and so I’ve also thought about how easily accidents can happen anywhere. I’ve entertained the equally valid thought that I have avoided fatal accidents in my local area by being safely up in the sky or walking down a street in France. “Lucky me, I not only get to be in Toulouse, I just avoided a fatal car crash.” If we can crush ourselves with guilt over potential bad choices on the one hand, then we must also congratulate ourselves on obvious good choices that have saved our own lives, right? I mean, I’m here alive today with the choices I’ve made. Would I be if I didn’t travel? That is unknowable.

5. Given that you see business travel as a positive part of your life, how do you think about limits? Is there any amount of business travel that is too much for you?

My threshold for being able to travel and keep a balance in my life tops off somewhere between 30–40% of the time. If I’m away from home fewer than 10 nights a month, things are smooth and positive as I’ve described. If I’m away more than 12 days in a thirty day period, we definitely experience stress. Over the past year, it has ranged from 0 to 17 nights away per month, with an average of 9. On the aggregate it worked, but there were a few tough periods in there where I wish I could have done better for my family. It’s not a guilt-free lifestyle, but there are enough positives that I try not to let the downsides bog me down. A favorite quote of mine, from Hafiz, is “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” I try to keep us dwelling on the bright side. I truly believe that I am a better person because of my travel, and that my family benefits from my being that better person. I’m much less constrained in my thinking, more confident in my own capabilities, and more relaxed because I get breaks from the domestic grind. While the family might say, “We’d prefer you were home all the time,” whether they would really choose that version of me is another one of those unknowable things, because that person does not exist.

6. It’s 8pm and you’re done for the day. Room service, hotel restaurant, or a local hotspot?

The best thing that I’ve ever done on a weeknight after work was to go to Friedrichsbad, the Roman-Irish thermal baths in Baden-Baden, Germany. It’s a 17-step bathing ritual in a “temple to the art of bathing.” Mark Twain described it in a letter to a friend such that, “…you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20…”

What I do depends on where I am, and with whom I am traveling. (For the thermal baths, which are taken in the nude, I went alone. Nudity among strangers was no issue for me, but I would not undertake that adventure with colleagues!) Internationally, I almost always go out to a restaurant with a group. The relationship building with local colleagues happens to a large extent over dinner. All day long we sat in a conference room and were bored or agitated or overwhelmed, but put good food and wine in front of us and everybody just gets happy and talks and laughs a lot. That’s where you learn about the world.

But at least half of my travel is to this one Midwestern city, not a travel mecca, where there is simply not much to see. At the end of my days there, I typically pick up some take-out food and go back to my room to relax – and FaceTime my youngest daughter.

Would you be interested in fielding some questions about your work life? If so, please email me (kate@workstew.com) or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with you. 

Entry #19 (2013)

In on August 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

Kitchens

Kitchen people are a different breed.

We don’t sit well. We move, creating beautiful works of food, tasting, sampling, consulting with each other. In the end, we have something delicious to show for our efforts. Then it is gone and we do it all again.

We sometimes talk about the times we had “real jobs,” where the pay was higher, the work was dull and somebody else cleaned up. The story always ends with us coming back, thriving in a crazy, high-energy environment where the work is hard and hot, and we mop the floors before going home.

From pastry-chef to line cooks, we begin each shift by making a list of everything we need to do. In a farm-to-market restaurant, the chef makes a Farmer’s Market run. Knives are sharpened, ovens and grills are fired up and we dive in, prepping each sauce, soup, dessert, and readying every ingredient needed on the service line. Jokes get fired back and forth as items are crossed of the list. Insults, stories, even rewriting the songs on the radio are part of the work environment.

Getting high-dollar meals to the table is a choreographed art. Salmon goes on the grill when the chicken is nearly cooked, a rare steak needs to come out the same time at the medium one. Line chefs cook side dishes, sauces and hot appetizers on multiple burners over high heat, flipping shrimp and sautéed vegetables in the air while frying oysters or chicken wings. Entrees ordered with salads and soups get “fired” only after the earlier courses go out and the customers are close to ready.

A run on a certain dish may catch the kitchen off guard. Making a blackberry vinaigrette, julienning orange bell peppers or baking apple tarts slips into the routine, all while we’re plating up desserts, appetizers and entrees, never missing a beat.

Food allergies have become common. We may find ourselves reading ingredients while juggling orders, to figure out what the customer can eat. Soy sauce contains wheat. People with sesame sensitivities can’t eat traditional hummus. Soybeans are hidden in nearly all processed foods, in the forms of oils and thickeners.

Special orders are a way of life for some customers. Sauce on the side, leave off the butter, substitute the side dishes from another entree, wheat allergies, soy allergies, nuts, dairy, the list goes on. Catered parties forget to warn us there are vegetarians coming to their seated dinner, for which they chose a meat and fish menu. We create their meals on the fly. If a server picks up the wrong order, we start another.

People cuss. Plates get dropped. The oven catches on fire.

Okay, that only happened once.

Out front, customers sip wine and share appetizers. They enjoy the entrees that arrive at their table, hot and cooked to perfection, four minutes after the salad plates are picked up. They dine in comfort and good company, maybe appreciating, unaware of the magic behind their meal.

Which is exactly how it should be.

And us? We eat a quick meal then put everything away for the night. We clean the kitchen, take out the trash and go home. No need for a post-work visit to the gym. We can shower and put our feet up, guilt-free. We’ve had our workout.

***

Back to the other entries.

Entry #10 (2013)

In on August 6, 2013 at 9:28 am

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

This is a confession. I make it on behalf of the entire wait staff of a popular chain restaurant in the mid-ninetiesa restaurant where we, your servers, wore red-and-white-striped shirts and plenty of flair. Not 37 pieces, perhaps, but plenty. We flirted and made you feel special as you chose between a Tuesday burger and Jack Daniels chicken. We refilled your drinks quickly and gave you all the condiments you desired. We laughed at your jokes, or we left you alone. Whatever you seemed to need, we complied.

We took care of you the best we could. It was our job. You were our source of income. And because of that, you mattered. But you didn’t matter enough to keep us from doing what I’m about to tell you we did. I say we, although not all of us took part. I say we because every single one of usguilty or not of the flair-and-smile-disguised debaucherywas an accomplice, allowing these behaviors to continue.

By day, we were teachers, single parents, Old Navy clerks, artists, dog walkers, students, massage therapists, and addicts. By night, over-priced food peddlers.

The job could be fun, but mostly, it was hard. So we checked our ethics at the door, doing whatever we had to do to get by.

We stole your money by altering the tip line on your credit card slip if you didn’t tip. Sometimes we did this even if you tipped wellto supplement the stiffers. After all, we had children to feed. And drug habits.

We begged not to have to wait on bad tippers, some paying the host to seat known offenders in other sections. If you had dark skin, we fought over who had to serve you because, the battle-scarred long-timers assured us, dark-skinned people left 10 percent tips max regardless of service. It didn’t matter if we had dark skin, too. We knew the law of averages, and we didn’t want to bust our butts for 10 percent or less.

We laughed at you when your orders fit our stereotypes. We gave your children crayons and balloons to shut them up. Their happiness wasn’t our concern; the pleasant dining experience of other guests was.

If we liked you, we’d give you free stuffsoft drinks, appetizers, salads, chips. We liked you, yes. But we also wanted your tip money.

We had power. Upper management entrusted each server with the ability to comp your food for any reason. And we did, sometimes after you’d paid your bill in cash and left, reaping the benefits all the way to the bank. That cash bought us flair. And Pampers. And top shelf Long Islands after a long shift.

If you treated us with disrespect, you could bet that something about your dining experience would not be what you’d bargained for. We spit in your drinks. We licked your silverware. It’s true.

Cooks really did pick food up off the floor and serve it, laughing about the five-second rule.

And all the while, those of us who had ethics were forced into quiet submission if we wanted to keep our jobs.

Sexual harassment was the norm. David, a dishwasher, followed girl after girl into the pantry, rubbed up against her, and grabbed her chest, groped her crotch. When a group of girls reported him, he received a slap on the wrist (and perhaps a wink and a nod), but kept his job. For how many people want to scrub dishes all day? Retribution? You bet. David made a point of staying after work every day for weeks, sitting at the bar, glaring at the girls, letting them know he knew, making them fear for their safety. For their lives. Fear was their shadow. Damned if they stayed. Damned if they quit.

I was one of those girls. And I did quit. I decided my safety and my son having a self-respecting mom who could hold her head high was more important than the rare $120 night.

These horrible things I’ve mentioned? I didn’t partake, except for the flirting and free soft drinks bit. But I watched them happen. I let them happen. And each day, I felt my sense of self floating away with the years, faster and faster every day. So I left and went back to school to complete my English degree. People often asked: “What will you do with an English degree?” This essay is my answer. Writing is my answer. Self-respect and ethics intact, even on bad days when researching and writing about anal fissures, I’m happy. I’m doing what I love. And who could ask for anything more?

P.S. The best tip I ever received$110 on a $220 billcame from a dark-skinned man someone else had refused to wait on.

***

Back to the other finalists.

Mother In Law: Juggling a Legal Career and a Personal Life

In Essays on November 20, 2011 at 6:50 pm

By Molly Bishop Shadel

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the movies with some friends to see I Don’t Know How She Does It. I found myself nodding in recognition at the heroine, Kate Reddy—I, too, have driven myself crazy trying to be both a perfect mother and a perfect professional. Then I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking, wow, I am so glad I don’t have her type of job anymore; I’m so grateful for my job, instead. And then I grew angry at the notion of gratitude for a job that doesn’t require me to live the crazed life of Kate Reddy—because no one should have to live like that. If we want a happy workforce, and especially if we want to keep women from exiting it, then we must shift the norm so that workers can be both professionals and human beings being at the same time. Law, in particular, should care deeply about this problem.

I used to be a practicing attorney; now I am a law professor. I want to tell you about how I got here, including mistakes that I made along the way, because many of the choices I have confronted are typical for women in my profession. But the point of this story is not that everyone should quit practicing law and go teach. Instead, I would like to suggest that there are challenges endemic to both legal practice and the legal academy that (despite everyone’s best intentions) will disproportionately affect women who have (or want) children, or on whose shoulders care for other family members (such as aging parents) will fall. I have two audiences in mind:  my students, who are aware of some of those challenges and are puzzling over how to confront them; and lawyers and law professors, who are in a position to change things.

When I first started out as a young lawyer in my 20s, it was just me on my own, focusing on racking up as many awards as I could. I went to Harvard College and Columbia Law School. I was on Law Review. I clerked for a judge. I took a high-paying job at a top-tier law firm after graduation, in part because I wanted to pay off my loans, in part because it seemed like an interesting place to work, but primarily because it was a hard job to get—a prize. My classmates, both male and female, were making similar decisions, and our salaries were roughly the same.

First Life Lesson: Don’t Just Work…Network

The law firm that I joined after law school was a great one, full of smart people who cared about me and wanted me to succeed. Some of the professional connections I forged there continue to be the most significant professional relationships of my life, and I have called on that network time and again, even though I left the firm a long time ago. So I pause here for my First Life Lesson. Women coming out of law school: if you don’t know what kind of law you want to practice, it can be wise to join a firm with a broad diversity of work and a high caliber of colleagues. While you are there, invest in relationships with your co-workers. It will make the job more satisfying, and can help you find another job down the line. I thought as a young attorney that the most important thing was to slog away at my desk, and that if I kept my nose to the grindstone, then my hard work would be noticed and rewarded. But I now firmly believe that creating personal connections with your colleagues—so that people care about you and are motivated to actually notice the work that you do—is one key to career success. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, the Project for Attorney Retention, and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association agree, noting in a July 2010 report that networking opportunities directly affect compensation, and arguing that firms that care about compensating women fairly should ensure that these opportunities are available to their female workers. If you are a young attorney, find those opportunities and take advantage of them. My work only got me so far; it was my mentor who took me the rest of the way.

But even though I liked my colleagues, I began over time to feel uneasy. Every Sunday night was filled with dread, because Monday morning was coming. Something wasn’t right.

I constantly fretted that the work I was doing wasn’t enough. This is not a new story; many of you at law firms know what I am talking about. It is a product of the billable hour system that many law firms use, which rewards quantity of hours billed over the quality of the work product. I felt like I could never get ahead, that becoming more efficient at my work did not result in a reward—it just netted me more assignments. Work, and worries about work, crept into every corner of my life. I felt pressure to stay late, to work longer hours, because that was what everyone else around me was doing. It is the sort of competitive thing that you see happening when you gather enough type-A people in a workplace and tell them that some—not all—will get a big bonus at the end of the year. Joan C. Williams, a law professor at the University of California-Hastings and the founder of the Project for Attorney Retention, has described this traditional law firm environment as designed with an “ideal-worker” in mind—one who is available to work at all hours, who will not object to having work swallow up his personal life, who presumably has someone at home to manage the unpaid work of going to the grocery store and keeping the bathrooms clean. The guilt/gratitude pressure that I have observed in myself in relation to my job began at this point in my life—I felt guilt anytime I fell short of the “ideal employee” model. It did not occur to me at that time to question whether that model was valid.

At the same time, I was keenly aware of the price I paid when I put in those long hours. Some of my friends were married and had children, and I could see that they were missing the most pleasurable years of their kids’ lives. As for me, I started to worry that if I spent my young adulthood working, I would never get married or have kids at all. Of those of us who wanted children, my female colleagues and I felt this pressure much more acutely than our male counterparts, many of whom already had wives at home to carry the load, or were not worried that they had a finite amount of time in which to start a family.

I sometimes hear my female students talk about how things for men and women are much more equal in today’s society, or about how they will always put their careers first and will insist that their partners carry an equal load, and I think to myself, just wait. Attrition rates tell a different story. For the past two decades, about half of the law school graduates out there have been women.  That is a long time, and you would think that would mean that you would therefore see a similar proportion of women at the top of the law firm structure. Not so. Today, women account for more than 45% of associates at law firms, but only 19% of law firm partners are female. Even with all our medical advances, women at law firms who want kids have to deal with the fact that the years that they are supposed to be logging the most hours are their childbearing years. It is also hard to anticipate how much you will long for your children, once they are in the picture—you may think that you will be able to outsource a lot of the childcare, or feel okay about your partner doing it while you are at work, but sometimes, on some days, that will become unbearable. Any new mom crying at her desk as she is hooked to her breast pump knows exactly what I am talking about.

Today, I have only one female friend from law school who actually stayed to make partner. The rest left. And the one who stayed does not have children. (Interestingly, my colleague, John Monahan, did a study of the Class of 1990 of the University of Virginia School of Lawboth when they graduated and at mid-career, and found that the percentage of women working full-time was highly correlated with the number of children they had—those who had more than two were unlikely to be working full-time. Not so for men.)

When I quit my job at the law firm, it was because of September 11. I had already experienced numerous nights in which I would wake up at 4 a.m., panicked, and think, this isn’t where I want to be and I have no idea how to change that. I would come home from long business trips and drop my suitcases inside the door of my Manhattan apartment and feel palpable loneliness because no one cared that I was home—nobody was there. I dated men with whom I had no future for longer than I should have simply because I didn’t see how I would possibly meet anyone else. I didn’t have the time. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, when all those people died and some of my friends from work and I walked home together amidst the crowds of bewildered New Yorkers, I thought, if that had been me, if I had died today, I would feel cheated because I haven’t yet had most of the experiences that I want in life. And I won’t if I don’t make something change.

Second Life Lesson: Listen to Your Own Unease

On September 12, I started sending out resumes, and soon took a job at the U.S. Department of Justice. It paid about half of what I made in private practice, and it meant that I had to leave my beloved New York for Washington, D.C., but it was a good decision. I loved the job because I knew that what I was doing was making the world a better place. I also loved it because it did not have a billable hours requirement. I was surrounded by people who had no problem leaving in order to be home for dinner, and that gave me permission to follow suit. So I will pause here for the Second Life Lesson (or perhaps it is more a life suggestion). If you are feeling that sick-Sunday-night feeling, make a change. In today’s economy, it is probably wise to get another job before you flee the one that is making you ill, but do not ignore the signs you are giving yourself. What you are looking for is a job that is a prize to you, not just a prize in someone else’s eyes. For me, that prize was a mission I felt good about and the absence of the billable hours, face-time pressure.

But also pay attention to something else that I just said. I took a 50% pay cut when I changed jobs.

I started to think about the significance of salary discrepancies during my time at the Justice Department. I became aware of the fact that my newly-lowered salary was still higher than the mid-level lawyer who supervised some of my cases. The lawyers in my office who had joined the Justice Department straight out of law school started at one of the lower salaries on the GS scale, and their raises were calculated as a percentage of what they had earned the year before. I came in at a higher salary because of what I had earned in private practice. It would take years before my supervisor would ever catch up with me. My supervisor had made her commitment to public service clear from the beginning; she had gone straight into it from law school and had many more years of government service under her belt than I. But if salary was any metric, that was not something the government cared to reward.

The way to make money in the government is to be willing to leave your job—to switch back to private practice for a time, and then to come back into government in a more senior appointed position, for example. The ability to change jobs requires a fair amount of support from home, particularly if the switch involves relocating. This can be tricky if your spouse has a job of his own, as the majority of spouses of female attorneys have. As in private practice, the legal world in the public sector rewards a model of employee that is likely to adversely impact female attorneys, albeit unintentionally.

Somehow, leaving the safety of my law firm job jolted my personal life into action, maybe because I had more free time. I met the person who would become my husband when I started my job at the Justice Department, and two years later we decided to get married and settle in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he owns a business. Thus began yet another job search.

Here is where I ended up:  I am now a law school professor at the University of Virginia, and the mother of two young kids (who arrived very quickly after I started teaching here).

Going into academia turned out to be the best career switch I have made thus far. I love my job. I teach classes that are extremely interesting to me, and I write about things that I care about. I have a huge amount of flexibility in my job—I design my classes the way that I want, I write about what I want, and so long as what I am doing helps students, it will be fine. And I work in the most family-friendly place you can possibly imagine: I only have to be on campus during the hours in which I teach class or have meetings, and other than that I am free to work from home, pick up my kids from school, and the like. I am a much better mother in this job than I would be without it. Work lets me have a place where I can have my own identity, independent of motherhood, but the kind of work I do does not drain me, so I can be present for my kids.

And yet…

Third Life Lesson: Make Time to Write

Law schools usually have two tiers of faculty members: tenured/tenure-track professors (who are expected to teach classes and publish scholarly work), and non-tenure-track faculty, who typically are not expected to publish, and usually carry heavier teaching loads, or other responsibilities (like running a legal clinic), in exchange. Since I did not plan to enter academia and consequently had no writing portfolio, I could only compete for a non-tenure-track faculty professorship, which pays a lot less than tenure-track positions. And so we reach the Third Life Lesson: if you have any inkling that you might want to be a tenure-track professor one day, then carve out some time to write. Having a written (preferably published) piece tells people so much more about what you are like and how your mind works than a resume ever could. You might consider spending some time writing even if you never intend to teach one day. Writing is work that keeps working for you—you log in hours to create the piece of writing, but once it exists, you can keep pulling it out again and again to reap the rewards of having created it. Writing, like networking, is another excellent use of your time.

And now, a word of warning. If you think that you want to be a professor, you should realize that taking a job as an adjunct, or going into law school administration, or even joining the faculty as a non-tenure-track professor, is not a route into a tenure-track teaching job. Once you take one of those routes, you cannot switch. There is no obvious on-ramp into the higher status tier of academia available to you.

This choice has consequences in terms of your salary, and it is likely to be women who will feel that consequence. Just as there is a notable gender divide in the law firm world between partners and non-partners, there is also a pronounced gender divide in legal academia between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty professors. According to the2008-2009 AALS Statistical Report on Law Faculty, 62% of all law faculty (both tenure and non-tenure track) are male, while 37% are female (the rest not identified). Of the non-tenure-track faculty teaching at law schools, over 50% are female. These non-tenure-track jobs carry less prestige, fewer privileges (like faculty voting rights), and less job protection. As the Society of American Law Teachers has observed, “an increasing number of women are entering law teaching as clinical and legal research and writing teachers. Their entry into teaching increases the overall number of law teachers who are women, but women are less likely to have the security of position and the status that is afforded to their male colleagues.” These jobs also offer much lower pay. Often, the top salaries for these jobs are capped at tens of thousands of dollars less than the starting salary of a tenure-track professor only a few years out of school. There is a similar divide in the ranks of law school administrations—according to an American Bar Association report from January 2011, 66% of those working at the assistant dean level at law schools (such as the people who staff the career services and admissions offices) are female, while only 20% of Deans (the heads of law schools) are female. Those at the assistant dean level may find that their compensation level hits a glass ceiling pretty quickly as well.  Life Lesson Number Four is to go into these arrangements with your eyes open, and to realize that if you agree to a low salary, you may never catch up.

This salary effect is similar to what happens to women in law firms who decide to go part-time or accept non-partner positions (like “of counsel”), or leave and then re-enter the workforce after some period of time. These choices have consequences. In a 2010 report of the 200 largest firms by the National Association of Women Lawyers, 6% of the attorneys are part-time. Of these, 75% are female, and 25% are male. Typically, women working part-time do so during the formative years of their practice, whereas men working part-time are usually at the end of their careers. The result? These women make a lot less money than their male classmates from law school, and that gap widens over time. Sometimes the women opt back into a full-time track (if the firm permits it), or (even more rarely) are able to be considered for partnership even as a part-time employee. Those who are able to make equity partner earned 85% of what their male counterparts make; those who do not have that job protection will make significantly less money per hour than the partners will. These women are paid less, often are given less interesting work, and have positions that are less secure than those of the other lawyers around them. Reports NAWL Foundation President Stephanie Scharf, “Women make up the majority of staff and part-time attorneys at large law firms.  Staff attorney positions offer little possibility of career advancement, and part-time attorneys are often the first to be let go.”

What next?

What does all this mean for law firms and the legal academy? Certainly there are already some women who have risen to the top at law firms and law schools, but the statistics show that they are the anomalies. Some may be childless or have an incredible (nontraditional) support system at home; others may just be superstars.  But should that really be the requirement?

It is worth examining our model of what is required to make partner or tenure. It is a model that was designed for a different era, when the workplace was designed for a worker with a stay-at-home spouse, and it puts a burden on the workers who are not able to rely on someone else to do the work at home. Questioning this model does not mean that we are giving women special favors; instead, it means noticing that we have constructed a model that gives a leg up to people who have no family demands. These women—the same ones who were at the top of their law school classes, the same ones that we cared about and mentored when they first entered the profession—are likely to suffer as a result. We must change the model to take the realities of the lives of the majority of women (and some men, it turns out) into account. If we do not change the inputs, then we cannot expect the outputs to change. If we want more women to stay in the law, then we will have to make changes to the legal workplace to make that happen.

This is not a question of people wanting to keep women down, or intentionally discriminating (most of the time)—but the practical result is the high levels of attrition that we have experienced among female attorneys, and we should care about that practical result, even if the steps that got us there were not meant to be nefarious at all.  On a purely economic level, we can consider the amount of money required to train a new associate when that valuable female attorney quits, or the amount of faculty time required to add a new professor to the ranks when one leaves. Think of how the advice to clients will be better if there are women on the team to offer their perspective. Think of the female students who want female professors to mentor them. It is bad business to lose the women.

But law firms and legal academia are more than just businesses. Lawyers in America play an influential part in our government, our politics, our businesses, and our society, asAlexis de Tocqueville noticed long ago. We recognize that this power brings with it responsibility, which we have codified in the professional responsibility rules and pro bono requirements of bar associations across the nation. Many of us came to law school in the first place in order to make the world a better place. We know that the law is an instrument of change, and we care about aspirational goals like social justice.

Law is important in America, and America is important to the rest of the world.  Consequently, we who are attorneys—and particularly those of us who teach attorneys-to-be—should do more than simply adhere to the minimum of what is required in the workplace. We should make that workplace better, and better suited to the realities of our current lives.

Lawyers are uniquely positioned to take actions that will have far-reaching consequences throughout our society. If women are leaving the practice of law, we will not have women in leadership position at law firms. (Right now, only 6% of managing partners at the 200 largest law firms are female.) We will not have as many women serving as judges.  (Right now, only 26% of federal and state judges are female. Thirty-three percent of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are female—that means three, and two of those three do not have children.) We will not see enough women serving in Congress. (Right now, only 17% of those serving in Congress are female.) And we will not see enough of them in front of the class in law schools, either. This hurts all of us, especially our daughters, who surely are noticing the message that this sends them. As Marie Wilson, the Founding President of the White House Project has said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Law firms who want women to stay aboard might begin by questioning the billable hour model, creating an environment that truly does not require face time (not one that just claims that it does not). This requires partners to support the idea in employee evaluations, assignment decisions, and bonuses, and to mentor associates so that the climate changes. The ideal firm would offer a track that would let people work humane hours and still make partner, with the same kind of plum assignments and salaries that would be equivalent (prorated for the number of hours actually worked) to others in the firm. It would also create an on-ramp to help women who have taken time off to raise children re-enter the profession.

Law schools who want more women on the faculty might think about the fact that any writing an entry-level candidate has done was likely performed on top of another demanding, full-time job, possibly with kids at home. It is wise, of course, to search for talent, but a fatter portfolio is not a perfect proxy for that, and it can lead to skewed gender results. Demanding a large corpus of written work in order to get the job places a particular hardship on women, and might explain why so many more entry-level teaching candidates are men rather than women. If a Ph.D. is required in addition to a substantial body of written work, then the results may well be even more skewed away from women. Think also about the burden that a female lateral candidate with children faces if the only way to obtain a new faculty position is to teach as a visiting professor at the school for a semester or a year (which requires either uprooting your family, with new schools and disruption to the spouse’s employment, or leaving your family behind for the year). Many male candidates in this position can meet the requirement because their spouses do not work or can stay behind with the children while the husband visits; few women are similarly positioned.

Law schools might also consider exploring ways to enable non-tenure-track faculty—significantly more likely to be women—to become fully integrated with tenured faculty.  This could include making sure to invite them to faculty meetings and workshops, so that they have access to valuable networking opportunities and the intellectual exchange of ideas that will make them better professors. Include them in social occasions, such as dinners for entry-level candidates or visiting scholars, so that they can make networking connections that will help them develop, and more fully participate in the life of the law school. Develop a mentoring program for them, just as you would for tenure-track faculty, to encourage their progress. Question the pay differential between tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, especially the glass ceiling that limits non-tenure-track compensation; consider the message that it sends about the value of the employee and the work. Offer job protection, like a non-tenure-track version of tenure, such as the university where I work offers, or consider making all law school teaching positions tenure-track, as other law schools have done.

One could say that the difficulties of which I write are a problem of privilege—the contract attorney or non-tenure-track faculty jobs are still jobs that pay quite well, compared to the average worker, with more prestige than the typical employee enjoys. One could also say that it is a good system that we have, in which we have these alternative jobs that may pay less but also offer more flexibility, because there are people out there who want them.

But while I can see that I am closer to “having it all” than my mother’s generation was, and certainly closer than the heroine of I Don’t Know How She Does It, I remain concerned by the fact that 71% of tenured faculty in law schools are men, while 51% of non-tenure-track faculty are women81% of partners at law firms are men, while 75% of attorneys who work part-time are women. That means that many of those female professors or attorneys that may have taught you or mentored you may be making a significantly lower salary per hour than their male colleagues. It helps explain why you are less likely to see women in those leadership positions at the tops of their law schools or law firms. Women are much more likely than men to take “mommy track,” family-friendly jobs, and I can tell you that, on balance, I am glad that I did. But it is startling to realize that once you have jumped onto this track, you will not find it easy to climb off of it. I do not have all the answers to the questions that I have raised about how the legal profession is designed, and how that design affects the women in it, but I do know that I want to keep talking about the skewed results. Especially because my four-year-old daughter tells me that when she grows up, she hopes to be a mommy. And a lawyer.

Photos provided by Molly Bishop Shadel.

I’m the Lunatic You’re Looking For

In Essays on April 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm

By Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming

“Mary-Katherine Brooks from Carthage, Tennessee, what are your thoughts on this company’s use of accounts receivable?”

I rose, sweating in the relentless DC summer heat. I hated this professor and his poor imitation of my thick Southern accent. For the third day in a row I would attempt to explain why I believed this company was using its accounts receivables and deferred tax credits as part of a broader effort to conceal a massive ponzi scheme, and for the third day in a row the professor would berate my ignorance of corporate accounting methods and, to the amusement of my classmates, label my observations as ‘crazy.’

“Ms. Brooks, did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, this is a good company and you simply aren’t able to understand basic accounting principles?”

Beyond the humiliation I resented his power over me: it was 1997, the end of my freshman year, and I needed a passing grade in this Accounting class in order to switch majors from Math to Finance. I understood the accounting principles in question—that wasn’t the problem. My professor and I had philosophical differences on interpreting this particular company’s treatment of its inventory.

“Professor, did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, the only reason Enron isn’t in bankruptcy right now is because shareholders and analysts are willing to ignore corporate fraud as long as the share price is rising?”

I often wonder how many of my classmates went on to become research analysts at investment banks, and how many of them spotted Enron’s accounting tricks but kept quiet. You’d have to be pretty sure of yourself, or completely crazy, to call out one of the largest blue-chip companies in the world for corporate fraud (this likely explains why no one called Enron out until 2001). You may be crazy, but you might also be right.

This story illustrates a defining aspect of my personality: I have always been, and will likely always be, that crazy person.

When I graduated from high school, I already knew that I was crazy because everyone told me so. I had high hopes for college, but my dream of fitting in was shattered pretty much as soon as I unpacked. The guidance counselor at my rural high school in Tennessee had existed to manage teenage pregnancies, abused children, and troubled lives—not to help anyone prepare for, much less navigate, life at an Ivy League university. I was woefully ill-prepared, and I tried to mask my fear behind a boisterous personality and amusing accent.

I decided I was going to major in two subjects I knew little about but liked a lot: Math and Russian. Russian I could start from scratch, but it soon became clear that my high school math courses were deficient beyond belief. My calculus professor was outraged that Georgetown’s admissions office had accepted someone who had never taken pre-calculus, and thought I was crazy for deciding to major in my weakest subject. I decided to take his advice and become a Finance major, so I could “make up numbers with all the other kids who can’t do math.”

After graduating in 2000, most of my fellow Finance majors went straight to banking jobs on Wall Street, or moved to New York to find their fortunes in some other way. I did not have a job, and didn’t know anyone in New York, so I took stock of the world around me: Russia was experiencing its second banking crisis in two years, and my expat friends in Moscow were returning home. In the U.S., the internet bubble was bursting and classmates just two years ahead of me were being laid off en masse, so I saw no reason to follow my unemployed classmates to New York. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I came up with the crazy idea of moving to Asia, which had recovered from the infamous 1998 flu.

By this point, I had long since given up on trying to fit in and was learning to use my uniqueness to my advantage. When I showed up in Hong Kong’s Exchange Square, handing out copies of my resume and buying drinks for anyone who looked like a banker, I had no competition and interviewed with every investment bank and brokerage firm on the island. When I accepted a job with a brokerage firm three months later and moved to Tokyo, I was the only finance expat in Roppongi who was female, 21, and spoke with a heavy Southern accent. When I moved back to Hong Kong four years later, I didn’t fit in much better but had matured enough to enjoy it. I took pleasure in the small things, like the shock on the face of this site’s editor when she heard me order a drink in my favorite vodka bar. “You speak RUSSIAN?  No offense, but I barely understand your English. Seriously, where are you from? And how did you get HERE?”  These questions never offended me—I loved telling the story of how I arrived then thrived in Asia. It underscored my tenacity, my determination, my fearlessness, my innate ability to promote the hell out of myself, and most importantly my willingness to take calculated risks. I was confident. Proud. Seven years into my career, I had molded my weirdness into uniqueness and made it work for me. I wasn’t crazy anymore, I was awesome.

In early 2007, my father became a candidate for a heart transplant, and I started looking for jobs closer to home that weren’t bound by rigid market hours. I thought my early success in Asia would provide limitless options, but I was shocked to realize how narrow my choices had become. I’d gone to a great school and had done really well for myself, but my experience was confined to a very niche area of finance, with a brokerage firm instead of a full-service investment bank and in Asia instead of the U.S. According to headhunters and hiring managers, I was ill-suited for any position other than the one I had, even though I possessed and was able to demonstrate all of the skills necessary to succeed in new industries that sounded interesting to me. The story of how I ended up trading stocks in Asia wasn’t cute anymore, much less appealing to potential employers—I was told that I sounded ‘flaky’ and ‘directionless.’ After all, I had majored in Russian then moved to Hong Kong, and now I wanted to leave Asia and Finance too? The decisions I made were logical—shouldn’t I get credit for finding my way from dot-com bust to opportunity? For being flexible and achieving even though the world had shifted in a way that no one had foreseen? For staying with the same firm for seven years and building a successful business? I worked HARD. I was GOOD. Unfortunately, I was also STUCK.

Thoroughly shaken, I decided the wisest next move would be grad school and paid a consultant $2,500 to rewrite the story of a flaky, crazy Southerner into that of a confident, unique business leader. It worked.

The irony of my time at Wharton was that I went there to create options for myself. But the major recruiters at business schools are big corporations, consulting firms, and investment banks. And they hate risk. They avoid it like the plague. To succeed, you had better fit the mold. When 2008 unleashed a series of events that would make ‘risk-averse’ a positive attribute, I realized I’d better squeeze myself into that mold if I wanted a job. As a result, I practiced explaining my career trajectory as a series of non-risky, thoroughly correlated events that were part of a master plan, and talked my way into a job that I hated and paid way less than the one I had before business school. That, by far, was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Adding insult to injury, the job I took was in a highly specialized niche of the financial landscape (reinsurance) and served to limit my job prospects even further.

So, I came up with a crazy plan to finally start thinking about what I enjoy doing, what I’m good at doing, and how to get a paycheck for doing it. I also finally started being honest with myself about the sort of person I am and the type of life I want to live.  Two years and 200 dates later, this led to reconnecting with a grad school classmate I had never thought of as ‘husband material,’ and eight months later I married the man of my dreams. Two years and 200 interviews later, I finally started being honest with myself about the type of career I need to pursue, and now I’m running my own IT consulting firm for non-profits by day and devoting my time to managing marketing and business development opportunities for a fashion start-up by night. If you look at my resume, you won’t see anything that points to IT specialist much less fashion designer, so this career change might seem to be the craziest of all. But maybe that’s what makes it right.

Photo provided by Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming.

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