Jess Troiano reflects on her personal experiences as a professional woman and the importance of mentorship and support for women in the workplace
Having been a woman working in the professional world for more than a quarter of a century now, I was given the opportunity to share a few thoughts about being a professional woman today and throughout my career. I started thinking: what would I say to me those many years ago when I started my professional career path, if I could, knowing what I know now. First, a bit of history is warranted, so indulge me in a bit of background.
When I graduated college (a long, long time ago – a these-words-should-be-careening-past-your-screen-like-the-start-of-a-Star-Wars-movie long time ago), I made the cross-country move from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to work in the United States Senate for my first “real” job post-college. I was young and (overly) confident. I remember walking through the halls of the Russel Senate Office Building, my heels click-clacking on that shiny (and terrifyingly slippery) marble floor. It never occurred to me that the expectations of working women at that time were grossly inflated. I thought things were great! Women were working in high positions (my office chief of staff was a woman!). I was a woman working in one of our highest houses of government where at that time, there were eight elected female Senators. Progress was being made. But looking back, I realize that the time in which I was an up-and-coming female professional was a rough one for women. Let me explain…
When I left my job in the Senate, I was given a sendoff gift – a notebook with everyone’s anecdotes and memories about me and my time there. I hadn’t thought much about it until I saw it on my bookshelf a few months ago and decided to open it for a nostalgic saunter down memory lane. Aside from a few lovely comments about my personality and the quality and strength of my work during my tenure in the office, the overarching theme of these anecdotes was based on my attire.
"Yes, that’s right… after a year of work there, what stood out enough for most people to remember about me was what I wore to work every day."
Now, admittedly, I’ve never been a conventional, play-by-the-rules kind of person, and I have always been known to have my own sense of style (that sometimes pushed the envelope in the days of cardigan sweater sets, understated jewelry, and sensible pumps). But really? I would be remembered for what I wore? I truly believe that would never have generated a thought about a man in our office. And it certainly would not have taken center stage in what people remembered about a man enough to write it down in a farewell memory book (unless maybe you happen to be Jay Wright, former Villanova Men’s Basketball Coach, who is arguably as well-known for his custom suits as he is for his two national championships).
But there it was, staring me in the face. Going by the numbers, what was most recognizable about me by 12 out of 15 people with whom I spent over a year working with were my clothes!
"That got me thinking about how many times I had been judged during my career based on my appearance or my gender rather than my abilities."
There were times as young female law school graduates when we were told to wear skirt suits (never pants) to interviews if we wanted to be taken seriously (and many courts still required that of women at the time I started my litigation career). There was a time a partner with whom I worked wanted me to make all of our discovery requests to opposing counsel because “he likes you. I think he thinks you’re attractive so if you ask we might actually get what we want.” There was the time an older opposing counsel condescendingly called a thirty-three-year-old me “missy” on the phone when he did not want to listen to me tell him why he was wrong (this is not an appearance reference, but you get the drift). And then there were the countless depositions where when I arrived, I was mistaken for the court reporter.
Now, none of these instances singularly hurt my career or even made me feel like I was at a severe disadvantage. At least I don’t remember them having that effect on me at the time. But I will admit that looking back, the collection of these events and micro-discriminations sure did add up to something. Women were still fighting for an equal seat at the table and much of the discriminations we faced were undercurrents and widely accepted by women and men alike.
As a young associate at a successful Philadelphia law firm, I always felt this overarching need to “fit in.” I hid my tattoos under suit jackets (even on the train where I might run into a partner from the firm). I was careful to dress in appropriate business casual or professional attire, as the situation or day dictated. And I never spoke up when it came to experiences that felt less than inclusive. I was young then. At this point in my career, I would not suffer through such experiences in silence. But I truly believe that is simply because my experience and my age afford me that luxury.
I wish when I was that college graduate, law school hopeful, or young professional that I had more strong, accomplished women willing to mentor me. Back then, there was definitely a sense that the roles and opportunities for women were finite. There were only so many pieces of that pie (or pizza, if you’re not a pie fan), so many of us simply tried to get our slice (and the biggest one at that). At worst, I experienced sabotage from fellow female associates, both junior and senior and at best I was met with indifference or a simple unwillingness to mentor by many of the more senior women at my firm.
"Since those days I have tried to advocate for meaningful mentorship and to be the mentor I never had."
Admittedly, some days I am better at that than others. We all lead busy lives: work, families, pets, side hustles, self-care and more. But being able to provide a network for women is something that keeps me engaged and excited. When I’m personally stressed, I work out, take a deep breath, pet the dogs, or call my mom. But when I am professionally stressed, it really helps to have women at work to turn to, even for a five-minute chat about nothing, that usually turns into something.
So, here are nine pieces of advice I would give women today (or me when I started my career) based on these experiences and more:
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