How to Beat the ‘Old Boys’ at Their Own Game

By Kate McGuinness
Published in Forbes, August 7, 2012.

Wall Street is notorious for its lack of female firepower. Ilene H. Lange, Catalyst’s president and chief executive officer, has gone on record blaming the shortfall on financial industry’s “really macho” culture and gender stereotypes.

In an interview with The New York Times (On Wall Street, Gender Bias Runs Deep) she is quoted as saying, “What’s looked up to on Wall Street are people who swagger, people who will do the deal at any cost, people who will work day and night, hour and hour, for lots and lots of money and they don’t care about anything else.”

This attitude holds sway not just in the financial industry but in law firms as well. In explaining why part-time partnerships were not available at my former BigLaw firm, the chairman explained, “The firm must be the highest priority in a partner’s life.”

Workplace Theater

I find that to be a truly warped notion. But if you want to give the appearance that your career is paramount in your life, I have some tips for you.

If you’re presenting a performance of “I’d walk through walls for this company,” you need strategic props, sensitivity to setting and a keen sense of timing.Props

Some of the props are physical; some technical.

Depending on your industry, you should always carry your laptop, files or an industry-appropriate document.

No matter where you are going, you must appear to be on a mission. If you walk briskly, observers will deduce your mission as an important one. Cover your desk with documents, books, and binders.

If your industry is paper-intensive, pile them up on the floor, too. Fill your trashcan with the near-brilliant ideas you’ve obviously rejected in a painstaking process to hit just the right note.

When you leave for the evening, take a bulging briefcase with you even if you have no intent of opening it.

Before you walk out the door, select a prop to leave on your desk to suggest you’re still in the office but have simply stepped away. The prop can be a sweater or jacket draped across the top of your chair, a half-eaten bagel (avoid fruit that turns brown) or an open bag of chips.

Your computer can cover your departure, too. The next time you install a program, take a screenshot of the window with the message “installing.” If you make it your wallpaper, anyone seeing your screen will think you’ve just stepped away.

Another computer decoy is disabling your screensaver or increasing the amount of time that must elapse before the screensaver shows. To prevent someone from accessing your data during this interval, lock your screen by pressing Windows + L.

Don’t use the same prop night after night; rotate them.


Don’t chat with co-workers in your office. Meet them at the coffee stand on the ground floor or grab an empty conference room. Be sure to have your prop of choice, i.e, laptop or document, with you. The same goes for long personal phone calls. Grab your prop and your cell and be gone.

As adorable as your child or golden retriever may be, don’t have more than one photo in your office. Remember the 16% wage gap between women without children and women with children. To remind your co-workers that men also have children, choose a picture of yourself with your child and your husband or domestic partner.

If you don’t have one, make one up. Any man of suitable age and height will do the trick. Photos of your presumed family poised to tackle a double black diamond on a snow capped mountain are best. You’re in the club. Don’t ever let them forget that. Needless to say, leave the bowling trophies at home.


Timing is everything. Study the schedule of the partner or manager you’re working with. If you’re on a project with an early bird who routinely arrives at 6:15 in the morning, be at your desk by 6.

No matter what time your superiors arrive, don’t leave before they do.

Program official emails to be sent late at night and very early in the morning. You do not sleep. You are on the job in full battle regalia at all times. Children? Don’t they have au pairs for that?


Costuming is a technique to be used sparingly. Put extra starch in your cotton blouse so it wrinkles easily. Skip your under-eye concealer; let the dark circles show.

When your boss finds you at your desk at 6 am with your sleeves rolled and your Starbucks Trente at hand, he may think you’ve been there all night. When all else fails, use the George Costanza approach: Look annoyed. You have the right to be: you’re working in a white-collar sweatshop.

Kate McGuinness is a former BigLaw Partner and major media in-house attorney whose novel Terminal Ambition weaves its mystery around a sexual harassment complaint in a BigLaw firm.

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