My friend Megan is a very funny, very well dressed legal secretary. She is accurate, efficient and conscientious. She is a joy to work with and someone you can trust with your clients. She works at the firm where I did my training contract and she should be given a medal for not turning as mad as the rest of the people that work there. She has worked in the conveyancing department for years and, although I know some dictation goes straight from a secretary’s ears to her fingers, because of her nature she will have picked up so much knowledge.
Recently she undertook a paralegal course and was wracked with feelings of no confidence throughout. Last month, when she found out she had passed with distinction, the firm offered her a paralegal role but accidentally tried to offer her less money not more- which she nearly accidentally accepted. When they gave her some of her own files, but no guidance or support, her confidence hit a real low. She was given a file to exchange contracts on, and afterwards she realised the mortgage offer had expired. She had assumed the very experienced solicitor who handed her the file had checked it and that it was ready for exchange. I remember from my training contract that this is the sort of thing that can usually be resolved but not before you have spent a few days in a cold sweat sure that you are going down and taking the whole firm with you.
She can do this stuff. Much better than I did it when I was a trainee solicitor, that’s for sure. If I have told her once that she is brilliant, that she should demand support and guidance, that she is an asset to the firm, I have told her a hundred times.
I could write a book about the problems low confidence has caused me and my female colleagues, either directly or indirectly, since I have been doing this job.
It means that women like Megan aren’t getting the support, pay, experience or respect they deserve.
It means that we aren’t confident in asking for pay rises, because our employers have already done us a favour by letting us leave early for parents’ evening/letting us work from home when the kids are sick/letting us start late on Wednesdays to drop the kids off/not scheduling late meetings so we can get home on time. (And at this point can I add that whenever my husband asks his employers for any of these 'favours' he is treated like some kind of modern day saint/superhero dad and they fall over themselves to help. When I work on a Sunday because I can’t stay late during the week and he looks after the children, again he is the superhero.)
It means that there is rivalry, and unkindness, and gossiping, because if the gossips were confident in themselves they wouldn’t feel the need to gossip in the first place. They wouldn’t have time to gossip, because they would be too busy getting on with challenging, interesting, rewarding work.
It means that things that should be said go unsaid, like when the Powers That Be introduce a new file opening form that isn’t very good, and the secretaries go along with it for six months but then explode in a rage the hundredth time they have to fill the bloody thing in.
I know male lawyers can lack confidence. I mean, I haven’t met any that do, but they must be out there. But they have the benefit of thousands of years of leadership, of opportunities, of not experiencing pettiness, of not being judged by their appearance and of not leaking breast milk onto their shirts.
I do think the situation is improving, but slowly. For example, at the weekend my children were (believe it or not) sitting sweetly doing some colouring in and I gazed over and said 'here’s a question, are you two possibly the most beautiful, lovely children ever to have been born?' DALC1 said 'Yes… Well, I think so but you had better check on Google'.
Here’s to us being aware of the problem, addressing the problem, raising a new generation of confident women, and men, and knowing that if you are meeting your financial targets at work, no one is 'doing you a favour' by letting you live your life outside of work too.