Los Angeles: the poster-child for superficiality.
Shortly after graduation, I took a job as a Legal Assistant at a small, boutique firm along the eponymous Avenue of the Stars.
I was living in D.C. when I applied for the position, so the interviews were conducted over the phone and over Skype.
My first interviewer, a young, bubbly associate bearing a striking resemblance to Mila Kunis, emphasized the welcoming atmosphere of the firm. “Everyone is really close,” she stressed.
When I received the official job offer via email, the head honcho wrote he was “elated to welcome me to the family.”
It stood out to me that every single person that popped in to say ‘Hello’ to me during the Skype interview was good-looking. And white. At the time, however, I recognized it as circumstantial and not problematic.
The Kunis look-a-like, let’s call her Angela, was a diminutive presence. She couldn’t have been much more than five feet. I noticed from my first day of work that when she walked into the room, stylishly clad in six-inch stilettos, the atmosphere changed.
Aside from the secretary and other assistants, she was the only female in the office. It was clear she had some kind of special pull over the male attorneys. She was smart, no doubt, and invariably sassy (dare I say flirty?) but I couldn’t help but wonder if the way the upper-level executives responded to her had something to do with her beauty.
The “family” atmosphere, I quickly learned, excluded the assistants. The attorneys would speak in hushed tones behind closed doors, break open the bourbon when 5 PM rolled around, and constantly joke amongst themselves. It was a running joke that one of the other assistants, a 21-year old intern only there for the summer, had a crush on one of the associates.
It was from this intern, let’s call her Lauren, that I got the inside scoop from. She revealed to me office politics and procedures that shocked and disappointed me.
I was hired because I was pretty, then fired for the same reason.
Here’s what I learned about the employee selection process:
When an application was submitted, the person’s resume was reviewed and evaluated. Applications of unqualified candidates were thrown out, along with candidates with ethnic-sounding names (except for Asians).
If the person had the proper “credentials,” Angela (who I would never really be sure if she was actually tasked with HR or just took it upon herself to spearhead the process) would tell the assistants to Facebook stalk the potential hires and print out photos.
“They have to be pretty,” Lauren was instructed.
My naivety was exposed.
When I started applying for jobs I was concerned with blurring out beer cans, when apparently, I should’ve been more concerned with unflattering angles.
My resume might’ve impressed my employers, but my looks sold them.
Not only is this disgusting, but it’s also unethical and illegal. This kind of muted discrimination occurs all too frequently in high-rise office buildings designed to keep certain kinds of people down.
Their definition of qualified included more than merit, and their definition of pretty encompassed more than looks. It necessitated being white.
Had I really stood out from the other applicants or did the fact that I was white and pretty set me apart?
This was the first red flag I encountered during my two-week stint at the firm.
My first week consisted of training with the previous assistant. The partners were largely out-of-office working on a high-profile trial so much of what I learned was hearsay. The incumbent apologized to me for the hypothetical nature of the training (“If this kind of a document came in, then you would…”).
I’d moved across the country to start work immediately because of this high-profile case and the impending departure of the last assistant. My car was scheduled to ship out the next week and I planned to cart the rest of my stuff, including my cat, cross-country with me when I returned to D.C. for a family event in two weeks’ time.
When I started work, I knew I had big shoes to fill and a lot of logistics to get in order, most importantly, housing. The partners and associates, however, seemed to understand that I’d made a huge change in a short period of time.
“There’s a definite learning curve,” I was told, which implied to me that I would be given the proper training and time to learn the necessary skills to succeed in the role.
Midway through my second week, however, I was called into one of the male associates’ offices and informed that I was on trial.
“There’s been some talk about the quality of your work,” he said. Completely blindsided, I pressed him for details. He mentioned a spelling mistake in an email and a few other careless but otherwise inconsequential errors. He mentioned also that edits I’d performed on a court recording were subpar.
Angela had given me the stack of paper right before lunch, providing me with no instruction. It was my first time editing on the job but I did my best to complete the task concisely and accurately.
This complaint confused me. I consider myself to be a fairly experienced and competent editor, and these vague shortcomings were not what I had expected. After apologizing, I explained that my work may have been impaired by my living situation -or rather, lack thereof- as I was couch-surfing.
I asked to see the edits in order to learn from my mistakes.
Later that day, Lauren found me in the bathroom crying, questioning my ability and my decision to uproot my life so suddenly.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “they’re being unusually hard on you.” When I asked her about the court recording which she’d also edited, she said she didn’t understand how it was an issue. She went over the edits with Angela and said we’d made similar changes. Nothing had stood out to her as being particularly egregious.
Lauren confirmed what I already suspected.
Angela had planted the seed. Apparently, she’d been badmouthing me to the higher-ups, who hadn’t been around to witness my work firsthand, and to the other assistants.
Lauren acknowledged the special “pull” Angela had over the male attorneys. She said she thought Angela had decided she didn’t like me and that there wasn’t much that I could do about it. She compared Angela to the “mean girl in high school” and said she didn’t like girls, especially pretty ones.
This seemed counterintuitive to what she’d told me before about the hiring process so I asked her to elaborate. The preferred employee, I gathered, was pretty but not too pretty to constitute a threat to Angela’s sovereignty. Lauren had been working there a month longer than me so I probed her for an opinion on the firm as a whole.
What she had to say was largely negative, and not unsurprising, given what I’d witnessed in my short time there: a gossipy atmosphere and some questionable practices.
I never did see those edits.
I was let go shortly thereafter on the grounds that it wasn’t a good fit. They were right about that, it wasn’t. If I hadn’t been fired, I would’ve left of my own accord. The experience was a blow nonetheless, one that I’m still grappling to understand. It felt like I hadn’t even really been given a chance to prove myself.
This is not to say that I didn’t make mistakes. But the mistakes that were considered fire-able offenses shocked me. I’d only been working there a little over a week.
My biggest mistake seemed to be something I couldn’t change: my appearance.
Being hired (and subsequently fired) for my looks reinforced that I was just a pretty face, nothing more, a notion I’d fought back against my entire life by being a straight-A student and general overachiever.
When I relay this story, the response I usually get is that my experience represents an exception to the norm. I fear, however, that extraneous factors often play a significant role in employment.
What does it take for a girl to get ahead? What about a girl who is considered not ‘attractive’ by society’s rigid standard? Or a girl who is deemed too pretty for her chosen field?
Yet people still question whether the glass ceiling exists.