How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101.

[CONTENT NOTE: racism, sexism.]

Once upon a time I was a “legal secretary.” I toiled for years at NYC law firms—and, with apologies to my veteran friends—for what we in the staff ranks called "combat pay."

The gig pays well in part because it requires a specific skill set, including fluency in legalese (and esoteric dialects thereof), superhuman abilities in deciphering horrendous writing, software proficiency across the entire MS Office suite and more. But let's face it: that job pays well because lawyers.

They’re the butt of many a nasty joke, and let me assure you this is justifiably so. Quite. Although some firm cultures are better than others, they all were (and still are) strictly dominated by an Old Boys Club. This manifests in various ways, the most obvious being that the biggest rainmakers, their favored protégés and those in firm management with real power are overwhelmingly, indeed almost exclusively, white men. Thus it should surprise no one—and it will not in fact surprise people of color, women and other minorities—to learn that I regularly witnessed sexism and racism (and etc.-isms) more times than I can count. Just off the top of my head:

  • At a group meeting of attorneys that included only one woman, who was not among the most junior people in the room, she is the one asked to get coffee for everyone while the men get down to work.
  • Male lawyers routinely entertaining firm clients at strip clubs on the company dime, thereby effectively limiting client access to their female colleagues.
  • Being expected to cover for men's extramarital affairs: once after a close call, one Big Willie told me that if his wife found out about his mistress, it would cost me my job.
  • Senior male attorneys becoming bitterly exasperated because a female subordinate left to pick up her sick child from school, when they themselves had never missed a single second of work in their entire careers due to childcare responsibilities: they had wives and nannies for that.

Most infractions went unreported; it was clear that except in the most egregious cases little if anything would be done beyond a Very Stern Talking To™. However raising such issues could impact the career of the troublesome, humorless and oversensitive tattletale, if not the perpetrator. Only once do I recall serious consequences for this kind of behavior. A senior associate attorney constantly stared at women's breasts when he talked to them, although he looked men right in the eyes. It was so flagrant that even d00d lawyers noticed it (Oh man, what's up with that Dave guy staring at you ladies' chests?"). After many complaints from women—plus the required corroboration from men that this was (a) really happening and (b) disturbing them—someone finally gave Dave the Very Stern Talking To™ and told him to knock it off. He didn't, and eventually got fired.

Also—and this is not just my observation—the kinds of (male) lawyers who go into private practice, especially litigators, tend to be so-called alpha types: domineering, entitled, quick to anger, narcissistic. Many are verbally abusive to those they consider beneath them—which at the end of the day is pretty much everyone.

Still, over the course of my time spent in cubicles, I met some wonderful and extraordinary people, some of whom became close friends. Including, as fate would have it, my partner. I mention this because our recent conversation led to this post.

PARTNER: I have a mandatory “diversity” class tomorrow.

IRIS: You could probably teach it.

PARTNER: Seems like they're always scheduled after some incident happens, not before. More like CYA than "hey, we really want to be more inclusive and here's how we can do it."

IRIS: Sounds about right. Who failed How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 this time?

PARTNER: [White male partner.] Apparently he told a black secretary who just had her hair done in short braids that she looked like Buckwheat. 



IRIS: Just imagine the kind of fantastic bubble you have to maintain for yourself in order to live and work in Manhattan, and feel free to say that. To a black woman. At her job.


IRIS: Well you enjoy your How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 Class!

The next evening I asked how it went. Unmitigated disaster. One d00d took up half the time interrupting and talking over people, including the presenters (two women law professors) who did not shut him down. Worse, they used jargon that went right over people's heads, like microaggressions—an important concept with critical implications for increasing diversity.

This epic failure bugged me for many reasons, mainly the enormous waste of a rare opportunity. The people in that room are those who most need to understand this stuff. (“Buckwheat”? Srsly?) I started thinking about how I might engage that audience in a discussion about diversity. Besides making that one d00d shut up 4 EVAH, obviously. These are a few resources I might tap to discuss microaggressions, which seems to me a good place to start.

1. This Psychology Today article.  It’s a decent 101-level explanation of microaggressions that summarizes research findings. Key takeaways:

  • although they may appear insignificant or trivial, studies reveal that microaggressions may be more harmful than overtly bigoted words and actions.
  • microaggressions found to:
  • (a) affect mental health
  • (b) create a hostile, invalidating work or school climate
  • (c) perpetuate stereotype threat
  • (d) create physical health problems
  • (e) saturate society with cues that signal devaluation of the group
  • (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities
  • (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
  • most people harbor unconscious biases and prejudices.
  • getting people to realize they are acting in a biased manner is a monumental task (for many reasons).

2. The Tumblr Microaggressions. There are so many excellent examples here it would be hard to pick just a few.

3. Making the Invisible Visible: Gender Microaggressions (pdf). Ostensibly focused on gender, it’s a nice primer on microaggressions generally.

4. Right on cue came this Atlantic article: The Odds That a Panel Would 'Randomly' Be All Men Are Astronomical. Mathematician Greg Martin worked out that the odds that speaker panels at tech conferences would be all (or overwhelmingly) men: next to zero. He concludes that "any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly." He attributes this effect to unconscious bias

Other findings that cannot be dismissed easily:

I wouldn't expect to have much of an impact in one session, but a reasonable goal might be to get some people to take better care with their words and actions, and begin to notice problems they did not see before. I know from my own experience that this is only the start of a personal journey—and it will take many, many personal journeys to make meaningful progress.

But if there are people who genuinely want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem—and I believe there are—they will have to start dealing with uncomfortable realities somewhere, sometime.