Striving for authenticity
Authenticity is often seen as being key to personal and professional success. But when you don’t fit a certain mould, achieving this desired state in the workplace can be challenging, as lawyers disclose to Muireann Bolger.
“A Magic Circle law firm partner once told me that I would clearly never make it as a lawyer. People can make bizarre judgements about you, when you are true to yourself, straight-talking and authentic.”
When reflecting upon these dispiriting and unkind words, there is no trace of bitterness in Alice Stephenson’s voice.
Instead, as the CEO of Stephenson Law explores the prejudices that greeted her as she entered IP, she is clear that such negativity only inspired her to prove her detractors wrong.
“I was judged for becoming a single teenage mother at 18, derided for my choice to have tattoos, and held back simply for being an outspoken woman in law. But those experiences made me the woman I am today and have inspired me to demand better for the next generation,” she says.
Now, she is the founder of a law firm and consultancy with three offices in Amsterdam, Bristol and London—and is on a mission to break down outdated stereotypes in law, and inspire authentic self-expression among lawyers.
Increasingly, authenticity is cited as being key to personal and professional success. But what are the issues posed to people who strive for authenticity but who feel they have to hide aspects of themselves at work, including their background, preferred appearance, sexual orientation, or even unconventional outlook on life?
For Stephenson, authenticity is about “living your life in accordance with your own core values, and not allowing anyone or anything to compromise those values”.
This is an ethos that she has tried to instil into her startup’s culture.
“Our firm has a culture where it’s important that everybody feels like they can be their authentic selves, so they don’t feel like they are bringing a different version of themselves to work,” she explains.
“So it doesn’t matter what our team looks like, as long as the work gets done. The feedback from our people is that they’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. And it makes it very special for them.”
And how did clients react when she abandoned the formal attire and legal jargon seen as the cultural norm in IP?
Some were a bit surprised at first, she reflects. “There’s always a danger, when you put yourself out there, that not everybody is going to like what you have to say, or what you look like. And I think you have to develop a relatively thick skin to be able to deal with that, because none of us like rejection in any form,” she explains.
“But I think it’s had a positive impact in lots and lots of ways. For example, I had one client who said it was on his bucket list to work with a lawyer with tattoos.”
For Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean of international and non-J.D. programmes at Fordham Law School, and author of “Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona”, the concept of authenticity was initially a puzzling one.
“I used to think authenticity was kind of ‘lame’,” she admits. “I was conflicted, because I think a lot of people, including myself, may have misunderstood the term. For example, I thought it was something along the lines of: if a person likes wearing shorts to a client meeting, then they should wear shorts, which isn’t profoundly meaningful.”
”Now I understand authenticity to mean when you can flourish in an environment where you can be true to yourself, your core values, and purpose.”
Toni Jaeger-Fine, Fordham Law School
It was only by reflecting on her own journey towards authenticity that she came to understand its power and that its true meaning was much more in-depth—and so embarked on her quest to help lawyers embrace authenticity so they could flourish personally and professionally.
“Now I understand authenticity to mean when you can flourish in an environment where you can be true to yourself, your core values, and purpose, and not have to spend a lot of time and energy hiding who you really are. And that, to me, is a meaningful value.”
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she reflects that during her early years as a young attorney before she was fully out, she would expend considerable energy hiding her true self.
“I would try to act in a particular way that I thought would enable me to blend in more, for example, dressing in a certain stereotypically feminine way. It was an effort that consumed a lot of energy, created a lot of stress and anxiety, and just meant that I wasn’t doing other things as well as I should have been.”
Authenticity at work, she continues, is critical: “By spending time pretending to be someone you’re not, or trying to adapt to a cultural norm that doesn’t suit you, you’re spending a lot of energy that should be spent on much better things.”
Masking and filtering
Such sentiments resonate with LGBTQ+ rights advocate and patent attorney at EIP, Darren Smyth.
“I think the ability to be authentic in your workplace, where you spend many hours of your week, is extremely important and incredibly liberating,” he explains.
The other problem with being inauthentic, he adds, is that quite a lot of people can spot that something is awry.
“People don’t necessarily realise what it is; but they sense that something is off.” In a profession built on trusting relationships such as IP, this can be extremely problematic.
People who conceal aspects of themselves ‘mask’ or ‘filter’, which Smyth explains, can exact a damaging psychological toll.
“When you mask in a given situation, everything that you say and do first goes through a filter. And if you’re hiding something, quite fundamental about yourself, such as your sexual orientation, then an answer to an entirely innocuous question touches on something far deeper.”
For example, he explains that a customary query such as: “what did you do at the weekend?” can evolve into a fraught dilemma for people who feel they cannot fully disclose certain aspects of their lives.
“So if you did something with your same sex partner, you may immediately wonder whether it is safe to mention the partner’s name or refer to them by their pronouns, which then could reveal to the person that you’re gay,” explains Smyth.
Simply put, this means the answer to perfectly innocent offhand questions becomes quite complex for a person who has to perform a filtering process.
“It is absolutely exhausting. And people don’t realise how exhausting it is because people who feel they need to mask usually have been doing it all their lives, and are very good at it. And it almost becomes second nature. But just because it’s second nature doesn’t mean that it isn’t sapping a huge amount of energy,” he warns.
For LBGTQ+ people, he believes that the situation—at least in the UK—has improved in recent years.
Back in 2016, when he founded IP Out—IP Inclusive’s division for the LGBTQ+ community— there was an unspoken rule among members: that it was fine to be out in the workplace, but that it was probably best not to be explicitly ‘out’ to clients.
But over the last six years, there has been a “progressive shift” in this perception.
“Plenty of LGBTQ+ people within the profession now think that they have permission to be appropriately ‘out’ with clients in a situation that doesn’t obviously counter indicate it.”
Of course, he adds, there can still be some ‘filtering’ and ‘masking’ in certain situations, especially if a client is from a particularly conservative culture.
“But I think we’ve moved away from this hard default of: just don’t even risk disclosing your sexual orientation.”
Nicole Spence, data and AI brand legal counsel at IBM, believes that companies, firms and clients have come a long way, but that bias remains a barrier to true authenticity.
For women of colour, she argues, this can be particularly problematic.
Even if a company is clear that people can wear their hair whatever way they want to wear it, Spence points out that it is impossible to take away people’s real or perceived subconscious biases.
“I have African American colleagues who won’t put their hair in braids, even though they would like to, because they see it as something that is seen as ‘unprofessional’,” she observes.
“I don’t wear braids and that is a personal preference. But I have thought about how I should wear my hair in the workplace and I do shy away from certain styles, and do more ‘fun’ stuff with my hair during my ‘off time’.”
“There’s always this concern that an individual person may still see certain things as a ‘negative’ and that could affect your promotion or career trajectory,” she says, adding that for many, achieving true authenticity at work can be challenging.
“Authenticity for me is about being your true self, and unfiltered. So it goes beyond appearances, including hair. It’s also about your voice and personality, and not having to tone down who you really are.”
This reflection on the difficulties surrounding true authenticity strikes a personal chord for Spence, who has felt that her vibrant, upbeat personality has met with censure and disapproval at some workplaces.
”I think we’ve moved away from this hard default of: just don’t even risk disclosing your sexual orientation.”
Darren Smyth, EIP
“I’ve definitely faced criticism when it comes to my personality,” she says. “I use my hands, I’m a big personality, I laugh really loudly. Those are all things that have not always been seen as a positive in the workplace; in fact, they have been viewed quite negatively.”
“Over the years, this has meant that I’ve moved towards finding work environments where I don’t feel as if I had to be someone else in order to fit in. Obviously, when you’re negotiating a deal, you’re not going to be laughing, but it’s more about feeling that you don’t need to pretend to be somebody else while you’re carrying out this work.”
The ‘great resignation’
Spence believes that a failure to accept and embrace authenticity means that companies and firms will lose valuable people—especially as the ‘great resignation’ continues apace.
In a global survey of 30,000 workers by Microsoft, the 2021 Work Trend Index, 41% said that they are considering quitting or changing professions. And according to the US Labor Department, a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021. Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) were three times more likely than those from other generations to say that they were reevaluating their work.
Research by McKinsey showed that nearly two-thirds of US-based employees felt that COVID-19 has caused them to reevaluate their purpose in life, while nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do.
“People have learned so much about themselves during COVID-19 lockdowns, when they’ve been trapped at home by themselves, and they are clearer about what they want for their future,” Spence reflects.
“I’m a millennial, and for my generation, it is critical to be in a work environment where you feel comfortable and valued. And if that doesn’t exist, then we’re going to leave.”
Now, as she mentors younger aspiring lawyers from the next generation, she believes that the same values also resonate with them.
“We don’t want to mute who we are to fit in. Because what every person brings to the table is unique, and should be celebrated and not diminished in some way.”
To prevent an exodus and a loss of talent, and to promote wellbeing, leaders need to initiate the change, and not just expect other people to do it, urges Stephenson.
“People are too afraid to be authentic when they’re dealing with a cold corporate facade,” she says. “Leaders need to open up the conversation and share their own stories and their own vulnerabilities to encourage other people to do the same thing.”
For Jaeger-Fine, the onus is also on firm leaders to take charge and ensure that true authenticity is celebrated—and rewarded.
“Individual leaders need to stick with the values that they profess and be vocal about it by advancing people who are quirky, different and authentically themselves. By giving them a meaningful role and an opportunity to make a difference, it conveys that it’s okay to appear and think ‘outside the box’,” she says.
“Yes, a client or two may be lost, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in the long run; in this way we can become better—and stronger.”
Images, from top: Shutterstock / daniel catrihual, nito