Grayson from billing isn’t in his office. Neither is Ron, Brad, or Marcus from IT. The whole place is eerie quiet– like a Friday before a weekend, except it’s Monday. I go the long way back to my office from the bathroom to search for signs of life. Matt and Gerard both have closed doors, but the slivers of light on the floor are dark gray. The new girl Sena, who doesn’t have a computer or a security badge, is scrolling through her phone in an empty office. Emily’s light is on, and I see the yellow post-it note on her door that says, “Do not disturb.” When I get closer, I hear her breast pump whirring and sucking through the wall.
Is there an office-wide picnic that we hadn’t been invited to? I do another lap around the office.
I went to law school in 2000 for three reasons. (1) I was sick of encouraging the “lost” men I was dating to take the LSAT and get themselves to law school. One day, I finally realized I was talking to myself. (2) I was shriveling up from boredom at my administrative assistant’s job where I used my Master’s degree from the University of Chicago to send faxes on behalf of a famous sociology professor. (3) I was lonely and thought that being a lawyer would be just the right kind of all-consuming job to distract me from my lethally inadequate personal relationship skills. Plus this: It was the year 2000 and women could do anything! Look at Janet Reno! The God-damn world was ours for the taking!
On my second lap, I notice a sign on the large conference room warning would-be intruders that an important meeting is in progress from nine until noon. I slow my pace. Through a kink in the vertical blinds I see that 66% of the staff in my office sitting at long mahogany tables. At the front of the room there’s a white board with lists of names I don’t recognize. Marcus, who seems to be presiding over this event from a podium next to the white board, keeps crossing off names with a red marker. A partner from the bankruptcy deparment, an ex-military guy from a red state, yells out, “You took my quarterback!”
That’s when I realize what they are doing.
I finished law school first in my class. Big numero uno. Initially, I went to a fancy firm because they offered me a job, and my favorite professor told me to take it. I had the highest starting salary of the 171 law students in my class. By month two at fancy firm, an up-and-coming partner, a proud Catholic graduate from a school that starts with an H, claimed me. His habit was to cordon off the attorneys he wanted to keep to himself. He mostly favored WASPy males, but I somehow made the cut. so he told all the other partners that I was busy doing his work for the foreseeable future. In the years I was in his stable, I worked with only one other female attorney.
Back at my desk, I log onto ESPN.com, a site I’ve never visited. The giant green banner at the top confirms it– the guys are drafting their fantasy football teams. I’d been to the ethics training, the one where they said we couldn’t use office equipment for private endeavors. When Sari tried to reserve the conference room for a Feminist Book Club meeting, she was told she had to include the whole office, not just the women. “We have to be careful about optics.”
When I left the fancy law firm, there were no female partners in my department. Thirty litigation attorneys were led by five white men—the whitest of the white, the malest and straightest of the male and straight. All of them had stay-at-home wives, mansions in the suburbs, and funky memorabilia in their offices to show how dynamic and interesting they were outside of their 80-hour a week jobs—guitars, first editions of Leaves of Grass, framed ticket stubs from some earth-shattering World Series game. I joked openly about the Unbearable White Male Straightness of Law.
I stew at my desk at my third law firm, the one that’s supposed to be progressive. Raj swings by in his bright Patagonia vest, gelled hair, and suede tennis shoes. I know he’ll tell me the truth, if for no other reason than to see me get riled up. So, where was everyone, I ask, my tone accusation-thick. He admits everything. I pound the desk and rage about the old boys network. He feebly throws out that there were a few women there. Yeah, the ones who are young and considered cool with their wardrobe of Anthropologie tops and trendy glasses. He shrugs and offers only this: Don’t get mad at me. I’m Indian!
But you have a dick, so get out of my office.
At my second law firm, they gave me roughly thirty minutes of paid maternity leave and then wondered why I didn’t return when my “free time” with my baby was over. I guess they thought I’d come running back to them on the strength of that edible bouquet they sent me. I ate the pineapple, threw the slimy melon parts away, and then resigned.
At home, I seethe and shake my fist. My husband reminds me that I loathe football, that I morally object to it as exploitative of minority players, a glorification of toxic masculinity, and dangerous as fuck. I remind him that he’s a six foot three inch tall, thin, white guy who’s straight and has two graduate degrees. He also excels at golf, has never been excluded from anything at work, and is in charge of his professional projects. Not a coincidence, I add.
And that’s the thing. There are no coincidences. There is power and exclusion, even in so-called progressive work places. There is a football and a breast pump. There is AstroTurf and a glass ceiling. There is a place at the table or one in the hallway. What I’m saying is that we aren’t there yet. Not even close. And I do hate football for so many reasons, but what I hate more is exclusion dressed up as “innocent fun,” and conference room doors shut in my face.
When Emily’s done pumping, I storm into her office and tell her about the secret conference room football meeting. She’s as angry as I am. She tells me that when Maria asked to join the fantasy football league, Marcus said he would have to put it to a vote. You mean to tell me that to participate in this partner-sanctioned activity, she had to be voted in? Emily nods. I walk with her to the kitchen where she puts her breast milk in the door of the communal fridge.
Christie Tate is a writer and lawyer in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Brain, Child, and Entropy Magazine, among others. She’s currently working on her memoir about dating, How to Change Your Love Life in 800 Therapy Sessions.