May 29, 2003

Sexual Harassment at Law Firms?

Over at Ambulance Chaser today, there's a sad thread about sexual harassment (permalinks seem to be broken). It was good for me to read. It's hard to keep the reality of ugly issues in mind when you aren't exposed to them.

After reading her post, I did take pause to think about the office of the boutique IP firm where I'm working this summer, where all of the associates and partners are male and all of the support staff are female. But, in order to be registered to practice before the USPTO (which is the main bread-and-butter practice of my firm), you must have a B.S. in science, engineering, or math. Since my firm doesn't do much bio-science work, the female applicant pool is limited by the number of female non-bio scientists, mathematicians and engineers who go to law school and want to practice patent law. It doesn't seem completely unreasonable that there aren't any female attorneys in the relatively small office where I work. Within the next few rounds of hiring there should be a few, and given that there are some female partners at other offices, I don't actually think there's any overt sexual discrimination.

Ambulance Chaser's post also reminded me of a discussion I had with a female friend, k, about her last summer associate gig at a BIGLAW firm in San Francisco. When I joined [current firm] for the summer, they invited me to be on the softball team. They also took me out golfing within the first week.

I asked k whether she had taken part in any similar activities at BIGLAW firm, and she laughed. "No," she said, "In fact, I wrote a little diatribe about that in the summer program review form. Doesn't anyone think it's unfair that all of the firm-sponsored socializing is guy stuff? Did it ever occur to them that most women probably don't want to go to a sports bar, or to a pool hall, or to play softball, or to a baseball game. Most of us would rather spend our spare time getting a pedicure, manicure, shopping, getting a facial, going wine tasting, etc."

And honestly, it had never occurred to me. I like playing softball on my firm's team. For me, it's a pleasant way to spend an evening, and the trip to the sports pub afterwards is a great place to relax, have a few beers, and get to know firm people in a social setting. It hadn't crossed my mind that some of the women who play on our team may do it out of obligation to their careers--as in, it's just more work. Most certainly, if a female partner invited me to go to the mall after work one day, I would go out of obligation, but wouldn't feel comfortable, and I seriously doubt I'd have any fun. K makes a good point, methinks.

If the biggest gender-related issue that comes to my attention during my summer here is the lack of female-friendly social activities, I'll be able to say that this firm's got a clean bill of sexual harrasment health. I hope it is the largest issue I encounter, but thanks to Ambulance Chaser's post I'll be sure to keep my ears open for the rest of the summer.

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