Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
In 1813 we had the Bingley sisters. In 1815 we had Mrs Elton. In 1938 we had Snow White’s wicked stepmother. In 1950 we had the ugly sisters. Then we had Ethel in the Worst Witch, Rizzo in Grease, the shopkeepers in Pretty Woman, Natasha in Bridget Jones’ Diary, Vivienne Kensington in Legally Blonde, Sharpay in High School Musical, and if I walked in my living room now I would be fairly sure one of my daughters would be watching a TV programme or film in which a mean girl is trying to bring down our heroine.
Maybe it is inevitable in the pressure-cooker of Lockdown 3, but the Deceptively Angelic Looking Sisters of this house are at it all the time - comparing their lot with each other. How long did DALC2 have on the Nintendo Switch this morning? Who got the bigger slice of cake? She got a new pair of trainers three years ago last Sunday so why can’t I have some now? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained that you get snack if you are hungry, not because your sister had one.
Outside of lockdown there is hope for them, though. Without whole school assemblies, DALC1 was apparently the only child to enquire one week with the headteacher if their sibling had made it onto the Roll of Honour. They get extremely excited for each others’ birthdays. I can’t think of a third example but there might be one, you know, one day.
It is hard, because we have all been brought up with this narrative. Looking at the list above I’m actually wondering if Jane Austen and Walt Disney together are almost entirely to blame. Would you forgo Mr Darcy and Mickey Mouse to have avoided this Britney vs Christina culture?
I think I would. I have a friend who has recently been promoted. The joy of the promotion has been utterly obliterated for her by the concern she feels that the other women she works with are now constantly out to knock her. Their instinct is not to be happy for her, but to see her as a threat.
I suppose in a law firm it is very easy to compare people - by the fees they generate, by their 'wins', by the number of new files they open or the hours they put in. The thing is, though, in the last month alone I have overheard bitchiness about female fee earners both for earning too many fees and for earning too few. It is very, very hard to win. To paraphrase Sarah Cooper (author of How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings) the best thing you can do as a woman in the workplace is smile, but not too much, dress smartly, but not too smartly, and apologise for something every time you make a request of a colleague.
I’m not immune to these feelings of rivalry. How could I be? I was brought up on a heavy diet of Austen, and, you know, I live in the world.
In 2001 I was firmly Team Britney. I still am, but the difference twenty years on - another twenty years of being a girl, working with girls, raising girls - is that I know now I can be on both teams. I can respect the right of an English princess to follow a traditional path whilst an American one bravely decides to do things differently. I catch myself when I see another blogger bringing out a successful book before I’ve finished mine (don’t hold your breath, all) and remember that people can buy their book and, hopefully in due course, my book too.
I suppose there could be an occasion where you go for the same promotion as someone else and they get it and you don’t, but generally the success of a colleague is a good thing for everyone. The more they bill, the more chance of you all getting a pay rise next year. The higher profile their cases, the better the quality of work there will be coming in the door. There isn’t a limited amount of success available in one team or one firm. If a colleague meets their fees target, it doesn’t exclude you from doing the same. If it does, or if you didn’t get the promotion, don’t moan about it for the next ten years: go and find a job where you can realise your potential.
We can all do our bit to build up other women, just by thinking about our actions and our words, and empathising. But I also want to consider the possibility that we should be doing more than that. My next blog is about mentoring, and I apologise in advance for asking (joke), but I would be really interested to hear of successful mentoring in law firms and how these have affected you or the culture of the firm. Please comment below, or you can contact me at the Gazette or on Twitter, and I will try to include your experiences in my next article.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article