On day one of the Bertha women’s working group gathering I was faced with a challenging question: what is my definition of success? As a young, black, female social justice lawyer with a passion for using the law to address social ills, I had to reflect on this question. For the duration of the gathering, many more questions flooded my head. I found myself asking how much society’s expectations determine my definition of success. How do I deal with discrimination in the workplace and at home? How and why should women empower one another? How do I stay true to myself and adapt to my working environment simultaneously?
We often define success according to what others have achieved professionally and/or what others value. My definition of success may include being part of a movement that makes this world a safe and free place to live in; my definition of success may include starting a family young; or my definition of success may be something different from what other public interest lawyers usually do. My definition of success may include practising law until I’m 40 and then doing something completely different like running my own bakery. My definition of success will not be same as the next person; for some, a career in public interest law is not as attractive. Other women do not want to start a family young; some want to give their time to their career now and start a family later; in fact, some women do not want a family at all. The point is, just because we are all women, it does not mean that we want the same thing. You have to learn to accept yourself and be comfortable with your own dreams and aspirations.
For my own part, I realised after this week that we need not be afraid to put in place boundaries when being discriminated against. We should not fear to name the discrimination and state that it is unacceptable. With that said, it is not necessary to be rude or aggressive to respond to discrimination. One can be gracious and effective simultaneously: soft speech can break bones. Speak up against any form of discrimination. You will be surprised by how many other women you will be inspiring to do the same in the process.
It’s challenging enough that we have men discriminating against women; it’s even more disheartening when women are hostile towards each other. Many women carry around an attitude of “I’ve had it difficult in my career and so will you”. Instead of competing with each other, women should be empowering one another. What are you doing to make the road a little easier for the next woman? Women should share their experiences with each other; they should help each other up. We should encourage each other and speak well of each other. This is precisely what took place at the Bertha women’s working group gathering.
It may also be challenging to stay true to your own values while adapting to the environment that you work in. In order to do your work effectively, you may have to compromise slightly on what you believe in. An obvious example is the way one has to dress as a lawyer; if it was up to me I’d rock sweat pants at work because I am comfortable in them. The reality however is that in the legal sector, clients, other attorneys and professionals will not take me seriously in my sweat pants and that this may prejudice my client’s case. Another example is the notion of self-marketing and networking. I may not necessarily be comfortable with it, but in reality I need to do these things if I am to do well in my career. It is all about balance. One never grows in their career if they are stuck in their comfort zone. Do not be afraid that you will lose yourself; understand yourself but also understand the work environment.
At the end of the Bertha women’s working group gathering I took these lessons home: define your own success, do not succumb to the society’s expectation of who you should be, speak up against discrimination, help other women in your journey and finally, adapting to your work environment doesn’t necessarily equate to losing yourself.
Bertha Fellow at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies