Friday, June 06, 2003

My law firm has a fairly traditional corporate structure; of the 50 secretaries employed here, 49 are women. They are almost all middle-aged, most have grown children, and busy themselves with the same concerns of secretaries everywhere: shrieking over baby pictures, losing their minds when the fridge is out of Diet Coke, sniping at each other behind backs, and convincing themselves that the other secretaries are out to ruin them via vicious plots such as failing to reserve a conference room. There are also several young female attorneys at my law firm, many of whom are doing the career-woman's dance of balancing new babies, working husbands, and a stressful career at a competitive law firm. One of the secretaries, we'll call her "Pat," was assigned to work for two of these young female attorneys. Both attorneys are extremely accomplished women who are doing a lot of good work so early in their careers. (Both are also preggers, incidentally, and arranging conference calls around vomit-sessions.) "Pat" is one of the more, ahem, vocal of the secretaries, and could not keep the indignity of working for these attorneys to herself.

"They could be my daughters," she whined. "It is not right that they can be telling me what to do." She proceeded to rant about how these female attorneys were disrespectful and rude and, well, let's not dissemble, bitches.

One of these attorneys is well aware of her secretary's attitude. "I know she hates us," she said. "And I try to be sensitive to her discomfort and ask her politely when I need things done. But I am extremely busy, and sometimes I have to be short. I don't always have the time to hold her hand or massage her ego when I need something copied."

To top it all off, "Pat" has made it perfectly clear that she would have no problem whatsoever working for a man who was her junior.

And I can safely say that this attitude is not rare. It's hard enough for women trying to succeed in the careers and in motherhood without having other women bring them down. When even a young man is curt or barks at his secretary, they blithely accept it. He's busy, he's a grouch, oh, those men. You know how they are. He's a very important man. But there is a sense that women should be the appeasers, the hand-holders, the ladies. The secretaries don't take kindly to these pushy bitches.

Of course, there's jealousy. Pat has groused to us younger gals that we have opportunities in this world that she never dreamed of. So I can imagine it might be painful to be a woman in your 50s who, as a secretary, has reached the pinnacle of her professional career. She has probably comforted herself by saying, "this is the sacrifice I made to be a mother," and now she works for women who seem to have it all: career, families, success, secretaries. Even so, I wish there was some sort of sisterhood solidarity between these women rather than competition. After all, Pat is right--those attorneys could be her daughter, and her daughter could be an attorney even if Pat never got to. It's progress. Surely that could be a source of pride rather than shame?


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