A Personal Perspective on Women’s Equality: One Lawyer’s Blog Post
09/02/14 Kristen Gentry
Kristen Gentry is a Health Law Partner in the Indianapolis Office.
I was asked to write a blog about Women's Equality. Such a broad subject. And, I was told I could choose the subject of exactly what I wanted to write about. So many different angles, issues, concerns. Indeed, there are many choices. Headline grabbing issues abound: The War Against Female Reproductive Rights; Barriers to Education; Barriers to Full Employment; Violence Against Women; Unreal and Rarely Attainable Standards of Beauty; The Proverbial Glass Ceiling; How to Maintain the Perfect Work-Life Balance aka The Never-Ending Quest To Have it All and Settle for Nothing Less.
Yet, all of these issues are "issues" and as I am typically a glass half-full kind of person, and as this is a blog post, I would rather choose to paint the struggle towards Women's Equality in a more positive, yet personal light. From a personal perspective, my life has been impacted greatly by the leaps and bounds made by women in my grandmother's and mother's generations and also by the men in my life. My grandmother lived in occupied Antwerp, Belgium during WWII. She had attained a college degree in business in France, then eventually marrying my grandfather, an American soldier, and moving (never to become a U.S. citizen) to small town USA to work in the home. My mother, who is a registered nurse, is one of the smartest and strongest people that I know. She has an advanced degree in nursing and has lived a lifetime of continuous learning. She worked nights when I was a child, so she could be with us in the mornings and afterschool, with my Dad working days and cooking for us over the weekends and those nights when my Mom was at work. I had two older brothers, with whom I played Rambo in hay bales on my grandparents' farm, and rode dirt bikes and three-wheelers. My family supported my seven year foray into gymnastics (I was no Mary Lou Retton), sweated through softball tournaments during sweltering Indiana summer weekends, cheered me on at basketball and volleyball games and track meets. They pushed me to excel academically and supported my education at both the undergraduate and graduate level. And for that, I am so thankful.
There were others too. My 6th, 7th, and 8th grade history teacher, Mrs. Maggie McClain, taught me how to analyze and review large amounts of information and complex issues. When I graduated 8th grade she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said a fighter pilot. Top Gun was all the rage in the late 80s and I wanted to be Maverick---"going Mach 2 with my hair on fire". Mrs. McClain's reaction to me was one I will never forget. She looked stunned and then said something to the effect that I could be a fighter pilot if I wanted to be one and that I should never let being a woman stand in the way of what I wanted to achieve. I was stunned. I don't know why, but I had never considered that my gender could limit my career choices in life.
That one simple statement made me evaluate "being female" at a young age. I started to look for those women that had successful careers outside of the home - - - in what were traditionally men's professions. At the time, I knew very few women who worked outside of the home. My mother was one but most of my friends' mothers worked in the home. I knew of very few female physicians, lawyers, engineers, police persons or fire persons. The blinders fell from my eyes. I discovered those women that I did know in those professions had foregone families and children to be successful in their professions. Something men did not have to do. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I wanted a successful career and a family and was hopeful to find a way for both.
Fast-forward twenty plus years. Women have come a long way and I have found a way for both--- married thirteen years with three children and I am a partner in a large and successful law firm. Yet, the struggle is omnipresent. I believe that the struggle is easier for me than it was for my mother, the barriers less restrictive. However, they are still there. As I believe all women in the legal profession can, I can tell my fair share of stories. I am frequently the only female in the room---rooms full of lawyers, businessmen and accountants. I am called, "honey", "sweetie", and "girl". I have been asked by older men at meetings to get them coffee and go get their lunches, assumed to be a paralegal or secretary rather than a lawyer, and asked "test" questions rather than accepted for my accomplishments on face value.
Luckily, I have been blessed with fabulous female mentors, one who has always pointed out the strengths that are intrinsic in women: the value of being a peacemaker when needed; the benefits that a female perspective has on any deal or negotiation; and the importance of staying in the game. I believe in and support active efforts by women to network, market to and support one another, and to work part-time and flex schedules to stay in the workforce. I know that I've been blessed by my childhood, education, and the successes of the women that have blazed the trail, and built up by the strength of family, friends and wonderful teachers and mentors.
So, what it means to me, "Women's Equality", from my personal perspective and then transposed onto a larger scale, is a recognition of where women were relegated in society just a few generations ago; a celebration of and gratitude for what we have been able to accomplish to date; and a commitment to addressing and solving the issues for my own future and the generations of women to come. Indeed, the headlines still abound and there remains much to do.