Recently, much attention has rightfully been given to the pervasive instances of sexual harassment, discrimination and gender disparity in the workplace. As young professionals, we see an opportunity to urge our peers to think critically about what we can do to improve this climate. Many of the issues that need to be addressed in BigLaw and the legal industry as a whole will require significant systemic change to remedy. That being above our pay grade, we decided to speak with junior associates and summer associates to hear their ideas about what role young professionals can play in creating safer and more welcoming environments for women and gender non-conforming professionals. Their insights helped us realize that change can come in a variety of forms, and that even seemingly small scale efforts can produce powerful results.
Putting the “All” in Allies
One of the most important ways to create a more inclusive workplace is to correct the misconception that these topics are “women’s issues.” All members of a community have ample opportunity to be proactive allies for their female colleagues. These actions need not take the form of grand gestures; small, incremental steps can lead to bigger changes.
One essential act is to ensure that the ideas and contributions of female colleagues are not ignored in meetings and other group settings. The burden of speaking up and course-correcting can be shifted away from the colleague who already feels marginalized and onto those who experience interruptions with far less frequency. While this role may be taken on by more senior colleagues, younger men can also speak up to redirect the group’s attention back to the person whose contributions were ignored. This can be done in a way that doesn’t explicitly call out the interrupter. Instead, say something along the lines of “Suzy, you raised an interesting point. Would you mind elaborating?” The associates we spoke with told us that they appreciated knowing that others noticed this behavior and recognized that it was not okay.
Scrutiny of women’s appearance and dress in the workplace—whether as a result of company culture or formalized corporate policies—has long been a way that female employees are pressured to conform to traditional ideas about femininity and, more broadly, gender. Young professionals can create an environment where all of their colleagues, including those who simply do not subscribe to traditional concepts of femininity or masculinity, are not just tolerated, but welcomed and made to feel comfortable. They can talk to senior colleagues about the need to dismantle these norms and help to identify instances where the norms are perpetuated, which may be happening unintentionally. One place to start is by encouraging the adoption of inclusive policies, such as updated dress codes and maintaining adequate gender neutral facilities and restrooms. Even removing small mentions of gender can go a long way in moving the workplace forward.
Many of us can recall instances where we benefited from the suggestions and advice of someone senior to us, but junior associates can also be mentors to one another. One summer associate noted how a junior colleague included her on email chains and invited her to observe meetings so that she could understand how important decisions were made. The same colleague encouraged her to voice her thoughts and recommendations. In following this advice, this summer associate not only gained confidence in her role within the community, but also developed important advocacy skills. It’s important for all of us to think back to those who have helped us get to where we are, appreciate their efforts, and pay it forward.
Be an ally. Facilitate change. Mentor laterally. These are three simple actions you can take to create a more inclusive and accepting workplace. As young professionals, it may often seem that we are not in a position to exert influence in the places we work. Speaking with our peers indicated quite to the contrary: No matter your seniority, you have the opportunity to bring about change. Take it!
Taylor Norton is a third year law student at Fordham Law School and Joshua Goldman is a third year law student at the University of Michigan Law School. Both were summer associates at Debevoise in 2018.
Copy-edited by summer associate Madelaine Horn.
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