Women share leadership experiences at seminar
In the courtroom, Virginia Long would hear pet names like honey, dear or missy, along with incessant comments about how she looked or dressed from her male adversaries, clients and even judges.
As the keynote speaker at the Women’s Leadership Conference last Friday, former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Long spoke about her challenges as one of the first woman lawyers of her generation and her experiences with gender roles in the professional world.
Last May, Long served as the 2013 University Commencement speaker.
Rutgers Association of Planning and Public Policy Students held the third annual Women’s Leadership Conference, themed “Lean in and Reach Out!”
The students of the conference committee and Hillary Bardwell, assistant director of Career Services and Alumni Relations for the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, developed this year’s theme.
“This conference really shows how our Bloustein graduate women are really shining a light on gender differences in the workplace, and providing inspiration for young women joining the workforce and helping them to achieve their goals,” said Bardwell.
The day also featured other accomplished women speakers, such as the endnote speaker Chris French, founder of the company Reach Within Lead Beyond.
The conference committee consists of four female graduate students, who organized the conference around learning from the experiences of distinguished women in the professional world.
Long shared her struggles as being one of the few female lawyers upon entering the legal system and being the second woman to serve in the Supreme Court. She graduated from Rutgers School of Law-Newark in 1963, a year in which she was one of four women to graduate.
“Conventional wisdom at the time held that a woman could not pursue a career and still be fulfilled as a wife, a successful mother or a normal woman,” she said.
Becoming a lawyer, a male-dominated profession at this time, was a huge challenge for Long and her female classmates.
When Long began working in a law firm, she learned she was paid less than her male classmates, who had less credentials and were hired at the same time.
“For most of us, facing that sort of overt discrimination was not on the radar screen,” Long said. “Because we were young and resilient, we were ambitious and confident … We struggled to make our names and our merit by outworking every other person in the room.”
Committee member and graduate student Rewa Marathe, a City and Regional Planning senior, also felt this discrimination during her internship on a construction site.
“Men couldn’t believe that I was an architect on the site,” she said. “They thought that I was a secretary.”
Long said this type of discrimination felt by women in the workplace today was not something only placed upon women by men during her early career as a lawyer, but by a demographic of women as well.
At the time, there was a tension growing between working and stay at home mothers. Long felt as though she had to prove she was a good mother even though she worked outside the home and had ambitions beyond parenthood.
As the second woman elected to the Supreme Court, caring for one child with another on the way, Long felt the pressure to be a good mother and pave the way for women entering the professional world.
“[Women lawyers] all felt a responsibility not to fail, not just for ourselves, but because we believed that any mistake we made would be magnified as who we were, and we would have to be better just to stay even,” she said. “We exerted superhuman efforts.”
Long, along with the professional women of her generation fighting for equality in the workplace, saw their efforts pay off when the New Jersey Supreme Court created a task force in 1981 to attack the issue of gender bias and to learn its extent and impact.
The trail blazed by Long’s generation of professional women made history in achieving gender equality in the workplace, but she still feels that there is progress to be made, and that this progress already made is a symbol of hope for women.
“There is no reason to expect anything other than continued improvement in the status of women in the 20th century,” she said. “Your challenge is not to live a life in suspicion, cynicism or fear, but to bring the same optimism and determination we had of the past.”