Dot and the dinosaurs
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Justinian in Dorothy Says ..., Law firm partners

Barbie - the perfect spectator for carnivore battles ... Hubris and delusion ... How partners' meetings have changed ... Women don't talk like that ... Dorothy, our partner at big law, looks at evolutionary developments 

WHEN my son was three, he asked for a Barbie doll. 

If he had been my daughter, I would have been appalled. But he was my son, so I was glad. I thought the conditioning of my son to see men and women as equal, was paying off. He was going to discard his large collection of toy trains, and his dinosaur and batman dolls and take up an interest in women's rights. 

We took the family to Kmart to buy him the doll. The Barbie he chose wore a hot pink tulle frock with very high pink heels. She had the traditionally inviting but improbably proportioned chest and legs, and a spare handbag, also pink. 

At home, he disappeared with the Barbie to the verandah where his toys were kept. I followed, curious.

"What are you going to do?" I asked. "I'm going to set Barbie up," he said. 

'As a defender of justice and saviour of the people,' I thought. I left him to it, proud of my mothering skills and the wonderful example I had set my small son. 

When he'd finished, he showed me. He had indeed set Barbie up. 

The Batman doll was fighting a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Robin was climbing a rope. 

And Barbie was sitting on a box in her pink tulle frock, watching. 

Rapt.

Batman killed the Tyrannosaurus Rex. After scaling the rope, Robin bravely helped Batman with the kill. 

Barbie wasn't there to participate. She was there to admire. Batman was performing a magnificent and heroic feat, but he needed an audience to be a hero. Robin was busy helping with the rope. So, my son had acquired the perfect spectator - a blonde chick with artificially augmented breasts.

Where did that come from? My little boy was only three. We are a non-violent, equal opportunity household. My husband does not pick battles with gigantic carnivores, but even if he did, I would not sit on a box in a pink tulle frock watching him. I would, more likely, hide behind the box, in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and yell at him to stop being an idiot. (And the points of difference between Barbie and me do not end there.)

I thought of that incident often, for the first two or three years of partnership, when I was the only female partner in my 20 partner corner of our enormous law firm. 

Sometimes, sitting in partners' meetings in the early days, I felt like a Barbie listening to Batman tell the story about how he had vanquished a Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

Put simply, the partners' meetings a decade ago, of 19 men and me, seemed to me to be a group hug of affirmation. Or, to put it another way, hubris and delusion.

My partners would talk about meetings with clients or prospective clients at which the speaker was said to have been praised in the most superlative of terms. Sometimes I had been at those meetings. All I'd heard was an exchange of mild pleasantries.

Instructions were said to have been received, which indicated that probably in a month or two, after he had continued his excellent work, he would receive instructions on the sale of the Eiffel Tower or the mining of the outer moons of Jupiter. 

I wasn't used to hearing naked self-congratulation. Women don't talk like that. In fact, women will put themselves down in the hope or expectation that the person they are talking to will refute the put down and deliver a compliment. That is the reason for the expression: "Does my bum look big in this?". 

So, when I heard these manly stories, I was astonished. Early on, I snorted with laughter, thinking they must be joking. 

It took me a while to realise that levity was not part of the language in that room, and that telling tales about fighting T Rexes was a very serious business, which was best greeted with an admiring little manly grunt, a nod, and a "well done". They all believed it, or wanted to, or felt they had to seem to.

And it took me a while to realise that when I said self-deprecating things to the men, they took it at face value. I told funny stories about things I had mildly cocked-up (a funny typo, say), and said I was hopeless. They thought I meant it. 

It would lead to a detailed explanation from a self-appointed mentor about how he had the talent and expertise I said I lacked. 

I am happy to report that partners' meetings have changed. In the decade I have been a partner, I have been joined by more women. I realised that telling stories about how hopeless I am, was counter-productive, and stopped. 

And the hubris has also abated. Eradication was too much to hope for, but the language and imaginary achievements have been tempered. 

I suspect that's a relief to everyone at the partners' meetings, male and female alike.  

Dot

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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