Thursday, November 6, 2008

Looking the Part

It was the mid '80's and I was in my 2nd year of law school. I, along with my fellow 174 classmates, started interviewing for jobs at law firms. You know what I discovered? People who "looked the part" had a better chance at getting the job.

By that I mean if you were a white man who looked good in a suit, your odds of landing a job were good. That wasn't the only factor. Marks were the best indicator of getting jobs, volunteering in the legal clinic was a help, but to my careful yet admittedly anecdotal observation, so was looking the part.

Now I was 22 at the time I started interviewing and I could easily pass for 16. And I was just over 5 feet tall. Not exactly cutting the figure the law firms were looking for. My marks were above average, I volunteered at the free legal clinic and I more or less could string a sentence together. I tried to compensate for my inadequacies (i.e. not having a Y chromosome) but developing a firm handshake and wearing dark conservative suits.

My number one choice of law firm was looking to hire three students, but declined to offer me a job even though I ranked third in the interviews. They had already hired two women and it was simply untenable to hire three so they hired a man in my stead. I know this because the lawyer who had interviewed me, and knew my interest in the firm, wrote me that in a personal note on my rejection letter.

I am by no means saying that the challenges of practising law as a woman in the mid to late '80s was overly burdensome. Almost half of my class were women. The path had largely been cut the the decade before by women who sacrificed much to prove that the quality lawyering skills had no correlation to gender. And I did get a position with a firm that was a good fit for me. I am saying that even in a time when things were supposedly were equal they weren't.

And I think it's fair to say doubly true for those with apparent physical limitations or a skin colour other than white, though I am obviously not able to relay any experiences.

I think that many people around the world think the same of President-elect Obama for precisely the same reason. He doesn't necessarily look the part. He has dark skin, he's skinny and his ears stick out. I heard two people interviewed in the closing weeks of the campaign that stated rather emphathically that his name alone should disqualify him as it 'sounded too Muslim'. So even with the wrong name, he managed to find himself in the top job.

But he had a message, a manner and a mind that won over half of the votes in the U.S. and it didn't matter about that other stuff.

So for those who don't "look the part" of the whatever they might want to be, take heart. By carrying too many or too few pounds, by being too plain or too attractive, by having bad hair or no hair, by having skin colour other than white or by having the wrong last name, it might just matter a little bit less.


Sherry said...

A good look at the issues Obama faced, as well as your own history. I am finding some of the things Palin has said in the last few days interesting. She made comments regarding the double standard she faced as a female candidate.

You know, Lincoln didn't look very presidential.

Konnie said...

Thanks for your comment.

I also thought about FDR ... he was in a wheel chair.