Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I'm in Chicago at a training conference on HR stuff for the week. Seeing Chicago, with its towering buildings and opulent storefronts, reminds me that DC is not actually a big city.

I also have had my antennae up for examples of women living vocations (other than motherhood) passionately. One of our presenters has been working in HR her whole career (she's now around 60). I don't know whether her home life and values are the same as mine (and I have no idea whether she has kids). But listening to her presentation, it's obvious she is happy, and genuinely happy to see everyone who's attending (all strangers), and wants to engage them; she loves what she does and is passionate about it.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to note that she's clearly from the South. Southern women, as we all know, seem to do the loving and sweet bit better than the rest. For my part, I drive well in the snow, love the mountains but not the beach, and can do both formal courtesy and biting sarcasm before I wake up in the morning, but I don't call *anybody* "hon."

Nevertheless, even with all her natural competitive advantages, something about her really struck me. I think she really is happy. It would be easy to say that as she's on the speaker circuit, she's at the pinnacle of her career. But being a speaker isn't so huge - she could be a professor, or a bestselling author, or something, and consider herself even more successful. There's nothing about what she's accomplished professionally that means she should be happy and I shouldn't. And all work is work. Getting to do what you love does make a difference, but this woman apparently loves talking about workers' compensation law. Obviously, it's what she's bringing to it.

Now, I like the line of work I'm in. I like to accomplish my tasks with enthusiasm, and I try to be friendly to the people I work with. But I am not doing what she is doing. Could I do that? Could I make my job a vocation I love? I have to admit, I like doing things well, but I haven't been driven to excel since I've been in school. There's a difference between wanting to do a good job and needing to be the best. (And who likes people who are over-competitive in the workplace anyway?)

Something else that just leapt out at me about this woman was that she is feminine. For some types of public speaking, the speaker can be sufficiently anonymous that no personality need shine through. But with larger-scale talks, you have to get people to pay attention to who you are. And in a situation like that, there is nothing worse a woman can do than try to act like a man. Second-worst is self-deprecating and insecure. She did neither of those things.

Let me tell you what she did. First of all, she was dressed business casual (she's not an attorney). She wore a colorful jacket - not too outrageous but not severe and black. Nothing was too tight, and she wasn't wearing a low neckline or a short skirt. (I imagine some of her evident poise can be attributed to the fact that she was comfortable in her clothes.) Her hair, makeup, shoes, and jewelry were decidedly female, without screaming for attention. She spoke on her topic with knowledge and confidence - but she wasn't bossy, didn't become uncomfortable at all if someone offered information she didn't have, and never talked down to anybody. At one point someone asked a question, and she asked an assistant to write it down for later - but politely and smoothly enough that the fellow might later have turned out to be her boss. (I have had few subordinates in my career, but I tie myself in knots when I try to give them directions, so I was specially impressed with this.) She was warm, and she was passionate without being strident.

I think men *generally* make better leaders and public speakers, though there are men who are plain awful at either of both. The women who justify the inclusion of women on other-than-political grounds are those who can do just as good a job while being completely different people, rather than mimicking the men. I think I may mimic the men.

Maybe this is hard for me in part because of my job training. I'm told they did a study of mock jurors and separated the results by gender. Women tended to react in a similar way - reaction 1. Men reacted a little differently - reaction 2. They also studied attorneys. Male attorneys reacted even more differently than non-attorney men - reaction 3. Female attorneys were indistinguishable from non-attorney men. Interesting, eh? Now all I need is an example of a passionate and feminine female professional who is also a lawyer.


  1. I had no idea you were in Chicago...I'm about two hours away...northwest. Hmmm..if you come out this way again...maybe I can take a train down and meet you! How long are you in town?

    Boy, sounds like you paid close attention to the details of the speaker...did you hear anything she had to say? Haaa!!! Just kidding. I'm trying to think if I've ever had a speaker that made me take "notice" of her feminitity and eloquence. hmmmm....I know I've read book with characters who were like that.

    I hope that when I become a teacher, people look at me as someone who loves her job and is good at it (and I hope I'm seen as feminine too)! I want to not only gain the respect of the other teachers, but of the parents! Now that will be a task at hand, huh? That is one goal I become partners with parents. do you know you aren't that passionate and feminine female professional lawyer? You never know how others see you unless you ask or that information is given.

  2. I wish I had the confidence of that speaker. I'm a behind-the-scenes kind of person who is perfectly happy without a spotlight on me because I'm afraid I'll make a fool of myself. To be so sure of oneself that you can actually enjoy speaking in public, taking questions, and not become ruffled when something doesn't go as it should. . . absolutely priceless.

  3. I think you got at how to go about it: be comfortable with who/what you are and let that comfort shine on the outside. A lot harder than it sounds. I find, as a teacher, when I'm a professionally appropriate version of myself, I'm most successful in conveying my message and passion for our subject matter in class (this is at the college level, where discipline is a much smaller component of classroom management). It becomes less about my gender, and more about me as an individual, as a guide and representative.

  4. Interesting post - lots in here. I'm going to focus on your initial comment about DC - yes, I too have felt the same way about DC and it not being a real city. I mean, it is in some ways - but in other ways lacks the true grit and density of, say, Chicago or Manhattan. Anyway, thanks for these thoughtful musings to start off my morning. :-)

  5. On a lighter side, I wanted to add . . . I am Southern (darling/annoying accent and all) and that syrupy sweet attitude does not apply to all of us. I also do not do passive-aggressive very well, either. I should be kicked out of the club. Usually it is people 55+ that call you "Hon," but they will do it A LOT.

    And on your original post: I was in a very similar line of work and always looked for successful women in my profession who seemed truly happy . . . whether they had a family/children or not. It always annoyed me when professional women were hailed as the "first woman ____" (fill in the blank) but it seemed apparent that their whole life was their work - no real friends outside of social obligations, no husband, no family, no outside interests, etc. I guess for some that is sufficient (and FTR, I am grateful for their groundbreaking efforts for our gender), but it is not for me. I am not sure I ever found a "role model" who had a good balance, but maybe I never looked hard enough (or, more realistically, maybe I just assumed that I myself could never be happy in her life). Anyway, I really related to this part and although I have nothing substantive to add, I have thought about this post a lot today.