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Collins Street – Knife fight in the prison yard

March 16, 2023

-Maya Shanmugan-

The glass ceiling is often invisible, but often still very present in today’s society. This is the reality of corporate law, where a certain type of lifestyle and personality is expected of everyone. Racism, classism and sexism are often not intentional but casual by products of the unspoken expectation to fit into the same mould to appear ‘just right’.

Collins street at 8am is quintessential Melbourne. The power walking men in suits, the women somehow with good posture in heels and the clumps of ambitious interns queuing up for overpriced coffee is what greets me while I try not to look winded, walking briskly and at times almost jogging to reach work on time. Collins street, with its high-end stores and domineering grey buildings, was once a dream to me. When it became my reality, I was initially an outsider, somehow jarring with the easy elegance of the young, rich and professional. Now, I know the rules to blend in. 

The soul of private practice law is tasteful bravado. For those who watch “Suits”, it’s the easy swagger and firm re-assurance of “Harvey Spectre”. I got my first clue when I interviewed with the Agent for my position, who after making sure I knew my work, nodded approvingly at me, “I thought when I heard your voice on the phone that you would look very presentable, I’m glad I was right”. Surprised, I smiled my thanks. I would later go home to realise he had heard my stereotypically feminine, ‘remarkably youthful’ voice, and conceptualised an image of a young conventionally attractive female, a standard which I had apparently met. Throughout the course of my employment, I would repeatedly be referred to as “presentable”. In translation I was able to portray in my image the aesthetically pleasing professionalism my work wished to project. This image was of course, carefully cultivated.

Heat styled impeccable hair and a full face of makeup is an indication of a suburban existence. To be Collins Street, to be Toorak or Brighton, you need to

care but not care too much about your appearance. This means hair that is well looked after but not perfectly styled, makeup that is only mascara and blush and clothes that are not relatively cheap suit-wear corporate but mildly expensive linen smart-casual, like you could stop by the country club right after work. I learned to walk straighter, to get finicky about my coffee and my wine and project my voice from deep inside my throat so that I don’t sound like a little girl. I had taught myself to change my image since I was about ten years old, when I first concluded with cool certainty that to blend in with my neurotypical peers, masking was going to be an absolute necessity. Now, to adapt is my superpower.

Of all the Partners, only a handful are ethnically diverse. Even then, they were second generation immigrants at least, educated at the best private schools and able to play golf. The only other girl of Indian ethnicity in my entire team got confused for me, and I for her, until one day she remarked irritably if we should get name tags saying, ‘Indian girl 1’ and ‘Indian girl 2’. Diversity in this world is often applauded at a distance and is only accepted internally when it comes with a healthy dose of white washing. Racism and classism often go hand in hand. The idea of ‘public school’ is scoffed at, the word itself dripping in derision when uttered. Extracurricular activities for kids, when discussed at work, often include water polo and horse riding, the preferred weekend activity for adults mostly golfing. In the electorate map of Victoria, the geography of my senior co-workers, by some miraculous co-incidence, falls strictly within the blue districts that would never and have not in decades turned the slightest shade of red.

The capitalist world is designed to fit a certain few and therefore hostile to the diverse minority. The racism and classism is often casual, the effect being the complete gate-keeping of career growth from the disadvantaged. Private law is politics, where everything from your choice of clothing to your spouse (essential for projecting an image, like Scott Morrison with his Jenny) is for the benefit of your career. To be a diverse person in the, to quote from Suits, ‘knife fight in the prison yard’, that is law, is challenging and uncomfortable and at times purposefully hostile. 

It is a fight however that I do not intend to back down from.