Two Female Lawyers and Entrepreneurs Talk Building a Better Future for Women
Education and Careers Juliette Kayyem and Sonya Passi and true trailblazers. We asked the successful women about their careers and what they hope for women who follow in their footsteps.
When and why were you first inspired to pursure a career in law/policy?
Sonya Passi: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do work to repair harm in the world. At four years old, I wanted to be a police officer. After that it was a paediatrician. When I was 16, I started an Amnesty International activism group at my high school (so the interest in human rights was already there), and their global campaign that year was Violence Against Women. In the materials they sent me, it said that 1 in 3 women, globally, will experience intimate partner violence. I was so disturbed by this statistic. This was — and is — a global crisis. An epidemic. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t the front page of every newspaper. That was when I decided that I could have the greatest impact through law and policy, and I have been a domestic violence activitst ever since.
Juliette Kayyem: I was always drawn to law as a means for change and equality; my father is a lawyer and had worked in the Johnson Administration on anti-poverty policies. I can’t say there was a definitive moment, but I do know that over time I had come to believe that lawyers represent, for so many, access to justice. I remember early on in my career, as a civil rights attorney, our mere presence in the room to hear parents worried about the equality of their kids’ education simply were comforted by the fact that we were there. Much later, my career would take a very different turn towards national security and counterterrorism, but the sense that, even in war, the rules ought to apply still guides me.
What brought you to your current role? What are you working on right now?
SP: When I was 22, I enrolled at Berkeley Law. My entire law school personal statement had been about ending violence against women, and I chose Berkeley because it has the strongest domestic violence law program in the country. During my 2nd year, I co-founded the Family Violence Appellate Project, the first and only organization in California to provide pro bono appellate legal services to survivors of domestic violence who, for example, needed to appeal a family court decision in which they had lost custody of their children. This experience of starting a nonprofit in the domestic violence space helped me understand that: one, there are a lot of very big gaps in the services available to survivors of gender-based violence, and two, I wanted to spend my life filling them. In 2016, I founded FreeFrom, a national organization focused on long-term safety for survivors of domestic violence through economic justice and financial security.
JK: I like to say I have one career, many jobs. I have always been interested in how a society like ours that promotes the secure flow of people, goods, ideas and networks can focus on both: secure flow. In academia, as a CNN analyst and commentator, as an advisor to companies, it is that tension that fascinates me. I spend a lot of time thinking about trust: how to build it and how to nurture it, especially in the shared economy. I took over as CEO of a rideshare for kids, a company that builds trust, safety and security to help working families. It compliments my other work, but startups are hard.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in this industry?
SP: I work in a very female-dominated field (domestic violence) so the nice thing is that on a day-to-day basis I am not dealing with sexism, racism, homophobia and all the other isms that many other queer women of color face every day. However, every once in a while, I’ll go to meet a potential donor or partner and realize halfway through coffee or lunch that, while I thought this was a business meeting, they think it’s a date, or an opportunity to ask for one! Every time that happens, I come back and wonder with my wife how much time men must save.
JK: Mostly, though this is changing, it has been the lack of representation in the room. Ironically, at top levels, you will see lots of women, but in operations — often where I had worked as Assistant Secrtary at DHS and as a a Homeland Security Advisor — there are much fewer. So my “girlfriends” really come outside of my professional work, and that can be hard and isolating.
Why do you think the legal industry has such a low percentage of women in leadership roles?
SP: Because sexism is ingrained in every aspect of our culture, which means that white men in leadership might not even intend to discriminate against the women in their office (though many do), but they just don’t think of them for leadership positions or think that work done from home with a baby in one hand and laundry in the other is as valuable as work done on the golf course. But millenials are going to change that. And if we don’t, the generation after that will tear the whole thing down.
JK: While a lawyer by training, I have not been a practicing lawyer for sometime. Part of that was my own choice and opportunities; part of it, honestly, was that I didn’t think I was very good at being a litigator. What’s interesting, and something we have to cure, is how many of my friends worked through the birth and early years when they had kids, but actually decreased their work commitment as kids got older. I can attest, it gets harder; their needs are less physical but more demanding. I also think, as I wrote in my book “Security Mom,” that woman are way too hard on themselves. We look for guidance — “Lean In,” “Have it All” (or not) — and we sometimes can lose confidence because we don’t live up to standards. Having been in disaster management and been part of managing terrible events, maybe I’m accostumed to counting our blessings more, theorizing less.
What progress do you hope to see in the next 5 years?
SP: I hope that, as a society and as a profession, we can start to look at problems in their entirety. For example, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are focused on sexual harassment in the workplace. Before that, it was sexual assault on campuses. Before that, it was sex trafficking. But we cannot look at any of these strands of the same problem in isolation. Someone sexually harassing their colleagues at work is doing the same thing at home. Until we can look at multi-faceted problems in their entirety, we are not going to get anywhere.
JK: I think one of the biggest challenges is the “onramping” of women who have left the workforce. I see it in my peer group. They left for a few years to raise kids, but want to come back. I don’t think institutions are accounting for it enough.
What advice do you have for young women entering this industry?
SP: Be fearless. And find yourself the wisest, most kick-ass female mentors. I wouldn’t be where I am today without mine.
JK: Work hard, prepare, nurture relationships, seek help when you need and stop trying to plan ahead so much. You’ll miss opportunities if you do and not appreciate what you have built.