When I think about International Women’s Day, the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game” often comes to mind.
We’re captive on a carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round,
In the circle game
Every woman has her own story. We can never fully understand each other’s journeys, but we can look to them to find some collective wisdom about the future.
My story begins in a small town outside Boston. Men would shake their head at “women drivers,” and there were so many things that women were not allowed or expected to do. It was a confusing time for a young girl who was always a straight A student. Why? Well, for one thing, none of the mothers in my town worked. They were all stay-at-home mothers, and any aspirations they may have had beyond that life ended the day they got married. Yet my very wise and well-educated Dad always talked about the idea of me going to college. There was never any doubt that I would go, but there were still families in my town that sent their sons to college and not their daughters. I wanted to go but was confused by my upbringing as to what I could do with a college degree. One week I wanted to be a brain surgeon; the next, an astronomer. My passion for learning was undeniable but my goals were all over the place.
I graduated from an Ivy League college and then law school. I then moved to New York, where many of my college friends had settled. I started my career as a litigator and was in court every day. I was underestimated by many, as I not only looked very young, but I was a woman. There were days when I was the only woman in court. Some men were clearly very unhappy that young women were inhabiting their all-male domain, but as more and more women started appearing in court, it became a bit easier. Bankruptcy court was the worst. I never saw another woman there and all the men looked at me as though I were a circus freak. Rather than getting discouraged, I went out and bought a cherry-red business suit, which I reserved for bankruptcy court. No way they’d miss me now!
The older I got, the more I encountered women like me: looking for a fair shake but knowing we were viewed as “others.” One man called female lawyers “lawyerettes.” I told him how insulting it was and he stopped. We were all navigating uncharted waters.
I then entered the exalted world of international arbitration. I had the good fortune to work with a wonderful male mentor, William Jackson, at Milbank. His father, Robert, was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Like my Dad, he had five daughters and went out of his way to work with women for that reason. He involved me in an exciting arbitration involving a U.S. aerospace company and the government of Israel. Both parties were highly litigious, so everything from the scope of the clause to the enforcement of the award was fair game. I could not have asked for a better first case nor a better mentor.
When I started working at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), there were very few women involved in international arbitration. It was indeed an old boys’ club. There I met the remarkable Mireze Philippe, who would organize dinners whenever a group of women was in town. This was the genesis of ArbitralWomen, a group that has grown tremendously in the last 25 years and, as a founding member and former president, of which I remain extraordinarily proud. I was also involved in setting up the young arbitrators’ groups at both the ICC/USCIB and the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR).
I became an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School and Georgetown University Law Center. I felt a special kinship with my young female students, who were from all over the world and had lived very different lives than I. They came to me for help and advice, and many of them are still in my life more than 20 years later.
The good news is that the international arbitration world now has many women in it. My friend Claudia Salomon is the first female president of the ICC Court. Many other arbitral institutions are led by women, and all of the institutions are making huge strides in diversity, equity and inclusion. Many individuals have signed on to equality pledges, and many female in-house counsel will not hire an all-male team of lawyers. Whenever I saw a conference with only male speakers, I would call the organizer and tell him I was boycotting it and encouraging other women to do the same. It is now rare to see a conference with only male speakers. I think both women and men are trying very hard to have diverse panels, including persons of color, who were rarely fairly represented at conferences.
So as I look ahead, I would like to offer some advice for younger women who are struggling to become known in this field:
- Don’t give up. Things are changing for the better, and you can always be part of that change.
- Seek out a mentor, whether male or female.
- Don’t overpromise. In my experience women have a more difficult time saying no, even when they are completely overloaded. I was guilty of that more than once.
- Keep your word. If you commit to doing something, do it. The community is still small enough that word gets around if you don’t deliver on what you promised.
- Other women are not the enemy. There are women that will not help other women. Don’t waste your time cultivating them. They are unlikely to change.
- Finally, let your light shine. Be real. Be authentic. Be yourself. There is room for all of us as we continue this marvelous journey in the circle game.
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