Sunday, October 26, 2014

Eli and 1,000 Women

So I'm a lawyer and as a lawyer there are a bunch of requirements I have to meet every year in order to be able to keep practicing law. These include attending eleventy million legal training classes and submitting certificates of completion with the state bar.

As the year has been winding down and as I've realized that I have not been so diligent at finding opportunities to attend these classes, I started to frantically look for available classes about a month ago.

You guys. I was too busy earlier this year. Because TV. And laying on the floor eating candy.

I mentioned this to my friend Annie at work, who as usual was so on the ball that she basically had every single legal education opportunity memorized, categorized in her mind alphabetically, and was probably asked to speak at half of them. She told me that she was going to a great weekend conference in Park City in October and that I should "totally sign up and come too!!!"

Park City is close to Salt Lake City. And knowing that Annie would be there, it sounded like a fun opportunity. So I looked up the conference she referenced, and immediately hesitated.

Eli: Uh, Annie? This conference is called "The Women Lawyers of Utah Retreat."

Annie: Right.

Eli: So, this might be awkward to address now, considering that we've known each other for six years, but . . . did you know that I'm a man?

Annie: WHAT?

Eli: Seriously. I can't go to this.

Annie: Oh, it's fine. It's a conference that is put on by the Women Lawyers of Utah organization, but men can totally go. Men go to classes put on by WLU all the time.

I was still skeptical. Then I mentioned it to a male friend at my office, who very enthusiastically encouraged me to sign up and said that he would sign up as well. I expressed my concern that this was a weekend retreat for women only. To assauge my concerns, he emailed a representative of the organization, asking whether this retreat is intended for women only. The representative very sweetly responded that men were welcome to come too, that men have come in the past, and that they would be happy to welcome us there.

So with those words of encouragement, and considering the looming peer pressure of my coworkers, who maybe don't understand that I've already met my lifetime quota for awkward experiences, I signed up for the conference.

In the days immediately leading up to it, I knew we had a problem. The organization emailed us an itinerary for the weekend. This included lectures that were oh my gosh so clearly geared towards women, like the first one that was called "Her Place at the Table" and was going to be about overcoming gender bias in the work place. The other lecture had to do breaking the glass ceiling and becoming a woman leader in the office.

There was also a scheduled yoga session, chair massages, and a number of getting-to-know-you activities.

It was too late to back out. The event was paid for. My hotel room was reserved.

I had also been getting very nice emails from WLU over the course of the last couple of weeks, encouraging me to become a member of WLU because it would provide me so many opportunities to network with "other women." I politely declined these invitations, surprised that they continued to come. I asked my male coworker whether he was getting similar solicitations. He was not. This confused me.

Then I realized that the WLU thought that I was a woman.

Occasionally, and more often than you might think, people read the name Eli as "Ellie." Ellie is clearly a woman name. Unlike Eli, which is a man name. And every time someone reads my name as "Ellie," I condescendingly and self-righteously say "WELL I GUESS YOU DON'T READ YOUR BIBLE."

In reality, Eli is one of a small handful of names from the Bible that I probably know how to pronounce.

The blessed weekend arrived and I set off for the retreat on Friday. I tried convincing myself on the way that my attending this conference was somehow a way for me to stick it to the (wo)man. But I couldn't ignore the fact that the organization exists in part to provide a minority group a support network to better be able to face people like me. I also couldn't ignore the fact that I had been politely welcomed to this event, and not told to stay out.

Checking in was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of the year for me. I sheepishly walked into the crowded room of hundreds of women, stepped up to the registration table, and

Eli: Um . . . yes. Excuse me. I'm so sorry to bother you.

Woman: Hi! Can I help you?!

Eli: Well . . . you see . . . it's kind of a long story. Well, I'm basically attending this.

Woman: Ok great!

Eli: No. You don't understand. I registered for this event. I'm an attendee.

Woman: Wonderful! What's your name?

Eli: Look. I know. I'm a man. This is for women. I'm not trying to crash anyone's party. I just wanted to come to this retreat.

Woman: Ok . . . we are happy to have you. What's your name?

Eli: Eli McCann. Do you think they let me register because they thought my name was pronounced "Ellie"? Because I get that a lot.

The table of confused women handed me a goody bag and sent me on my way. I awkwardly sat in a corner the entire time with my one man friend, peering out over the hundreds of women. We avoided participating or drawing attention to ourselves in any way. We politely nodded when the speaker would say things like, "We are here to empower you to become better women! . . . uh . . . and . . . [looking at us] men, too."

Finally I sent a quick email to a good friend of mine who went to law school 30 or so years ago and is now a law professor at BYU. I told her I was at this conference, that I wished she had come, and that I was feeling very awkward being there.

Her response gave me great perspective:

"Cry me a river. When I was in law school, I never had a single class with more than two women in it."

The email worked. Yes, it was awkward. But the experience was good for me. No, it was nothing like so many experiences people have had as a minority due to their gender or race. Yes, people were nice to me and welcoming. Yes, I got to leave the two-day conference and head on back to my man's world, where I basically never have to feel like the cards are stacked against me because of my race or gender.

But in any event, being at that conference as a man and suddenly feeling very "one of these things is obviously not like the others," was a little reminder to me that I can do a better job putting myself in other people's shoes. That I can, and should, be more aware of ways in which I can help imbalanced systems be a little more equitable.

If the purpose of the conference was to inspire attendees, then I guess it worked for me.


~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. I'm mistaken for a woman over the phone at work ALL. THE. TIME :/ Even though try to "husky it up" a bit, I still get "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" on the reg. It also doesn't help that my name is Tony so people tend to hear "Toni" instead.

    1. Tony, I know someone with the same problem. To make matters worse, his wife has a deep voice and gets mistaken for a man on the phone. They both have unisex names. It's all very confusing. Do you happen to have a wife with a deep voice and a unisex name?

    2. Lol sorry Cary. I do NOT have a wife with a husky voice. However, my best friend is a gal with a husky voice who actually LOOKS like me with long hair (we basically have the same face) so maybe we should just switch names/places! :P

    3. This exchange makes me so happy.

    4. This reminds me of a Seinfeld episode.

    5. LOL, Lee. I thought the same!

  2. I'm just proud of you for keeping your clothes on. ;) It definitely wouldn't have been the time or the place. (Not that that has ever stopped you in the past.)

    I wish I could go to retreats with chair massages.

    And good for you for stepping outside of your comfort zone! I am glad you had one man friend there to commiserate with.

  3. This had me giggling out loud! Oh Eli... Sometimes reading your blog I think of you as my peer and not a man who's nearly twice my age. Meaning, that is, you sound a lot like a teenage girl in written text. Not that it's bad, it's perfectly normal--most guys do.

    Honestly, it is really hard to find places where I can feel secure as a teenage girl (my Mexican also tends to stand out, which is either a really good thing, or a really bad thing). I'm a bit... erm, more intellectual than my peers? I prefer the logical/rational route to things, which is against what most stereotypes about teenage females say. It's always been a difficulty to make friends because I intimidate boys and girls. It's a bit of a sore point for my family and I; my mum's even gotten really defensive about it towards other parents.

    It's difficult being an oddball in the group, and I'm certainly not the most odd-ballish person ever, but I think it gives you perspective. Most of those "oddballs" we see just need someone to be kind to them and not be taken aback by them. Because they aren't really odd... they've just probably been put down a lot by others and need a friend. ^.^

    1. This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing! :)

    2. I've been there. Not that I'm Mexican. But I left high school to start college at 15 years old, and never felt like a teenager after that. Trust me, as an adult, your extra maturity and logical mind will be recognized and appreciated by friends, bosses, and significant others. One of the best compliments I've gotten (when I was 21 years old) was from a male co-worker. Our job was high-stress and demanding, yet he told me, "you are the most emotionally stable girl I know." Now I'm 25, and my boyfriend certainly appreciates that I can operate based on logic and reason, not just on an emotional basis.
      You'll do great, Kiera! :)

  4. I am a CPA and am very familiar with continuing professional education, as well. FWIW, I am part of a women's organization in Texas that puts on CPE events every month, typically just for one hour but occasionally for 8, and we usually have about 50 women and 2 or 3 men each month, so you're not the only man who does this sort of thing! :)

  5. I kind of wish you HAD worn a dress...or at least a very snazzy power suit with a pencil skirt and tailored blazer complete with shoulder pads and some kicky heel.s

  6. I dunno, I think a dress might have made it perfect. ;)

  7. I love this post. That is all.

  8. What would it take for you to go back next year in a dress, telling the WLU that the previous year inspired you to be a woman?

  9. How awkward could it have been, really? I mean, it sounds like you managed to keep your clothes on, so that's a win right there.

    1. Seriously. That's like 1000% better than most of his awkward experiences.

    2. AND he was surrounded by 1000 women. Seriously, I'm not sure what the problem is here.


  10. Sounds like when two girl friends and I accidentally signed up for a Ministerial Retreat at a fairly conservative Christian university.. nearly all the other attendees were young men, most of whom were wife-hunting. The few other women actually were Theology majors, so the 3 of us really stuck out. We joked that we should've taken advantage of the situation and come prepared with baskets of home-baked goodies and cards with our phone numbers on it, and snagged a few dates :p

  11. Funny because if men held a conference welcoming women, but was a mens only retreat, feminist would be kicking, screaming, and crying.

  12. I got two degrees in Computer Science. Rarely was there another female in the class. If there was, it was probably a woman who had to become a student in order to get a visa to travel to the US with her husband. It has caused me to be unable to relate to women...I have very few female friends and far too many male friends. Teach me all that you learned about how to be a powerful woman - I'm afraid I'm a bit inept.

  13. As a guy teacher in the field of elementary education I have spent my fair share of time being the only male at conferences, schools, and professional developement. I use to feel weird when speakers spoke and said "women" then looked out and noticed me and stammered out a "and guys". Now I just enjoy the fact that there is never a line at the restroom for guys. In, out, and on my way. Learn to enjoy the ladies and your bladder will thank you.