Even as a child, Marry de Gaay Fortman (1965) loved to climb trees. Now, years later, the Law alumnus has climbed to the top of her field: as a partner at the law firm Houthoff Buruma. How do you, as a woman, reach the top? She gives eight tips..
Tip 1: Identify yourself with your work
“Women sometimes don’t identify themselves enough with their work. They sit at the office from 9 to 5 and then drop everything to pick up their ‘real life’ at home. They think that they have to work, instead of wanting to work. Do something you enjoy, because work that makes you happy, will increase your happiness factor. That will in turn make you a better mother, partner, girlfriend…”
Tip 2: Become resilient, get rest
“Mental resilience is extremely important: stay close to yourself and believe in yourself. In my career, I’ve had to learn how to deal with setbacks and resistance – especially in my work as an attorney. In order to achieve that resilience, I’ve learned to find a good balance between mind and body, and between work and rest. When you’re busy, it’s the moments of relaxation that are the first to go, which is a shame. You need breaks, time to process impressions and to reflect on what you’ve done.
‘The book ‘Taming the Mind’ was a real eye-opener for me’
“I read Ruby Wax’s book ‘Taming the Mind’, about mindfulness, and that was a real eye-opener for me: it showed me that I have to take some rest at times. By listening to music, for example. That relaxation gives me a better idea of what’s going on, and I am better able to make changes when necessary and to stick my neck out – to go against the grain.”
Tip 3: Focus
“To me, mindfulness also means taking time to look at what you’re doing and to focus on what you’re working on. When you don’t focus on what you’re doing, when you can’t concentrate at home because of the to-do list at work (or vice versa), then you constantly feel stressed. You’re really only half-present wherever you are, and you’re constantly trying to catch up. So stand behind your choices. When you’re at work, be at work. At home, be at home. That’s always been easy for me, precisely because I have children. That forces you to organise your time effectively. Home life puts work into perspective.”
Tip 4: Be good and tell it
“Many men in high positions have the motto: ‘Be good and tell it’. Is that arrogant? No, they’re just communicating about their characteristics. Other people can’t guess what your talents are. So you have to tell about your qualities, publish cases on your website, and above all, encourage other women to do that too.”
Tip 5: Dare to delegate
“Women have the tendency to take on everything themselves: work, household chores, parenting… I’m fortunate to have a partner who contributes a lot at home – if I had to keep all of the balls in the air there, I wouldn’t be able to do it. For example, I’ve outsourced household work and looking after the children. I once knew a woman with a tough job who would spend Sunday evening ironing clothes: that’s one of the jobs I’ve delegated to someone else.
“It’s very important to be there for your children. After all, you can’t delegate that responsibility. The children thought it was wonderful when I coached their team and went out with them every Saturday. Also, communicate with your partner about dividing up the work, and don’t hesitate to call for help every now and then.”
‘George Clooney fell in love with his wife Amal because she was both sexy AND smart’
Tip 6: Choose your role model
“My mother took care of five daughters and also worked as a Dutch teacher: she is my example. Since she combined work and private life, I saw that it was possible to build a career as a woman. She also let me follow my own path and make my own choices. For example, as a girl I always wanted to take chess lessons and judo, and I loved to climb trees, even though those were ‘boys’ hobbies. Thanks to my mother, I dared to accept challenges and to take responsibility. You don’t always have to literally stand at the top to be a top woman; you can define ‘at the top’ however you like. A lot of women do very important work in very different ways.”
Tip 7: Help one another
“From the Bottom to the Top is one of my favourite songs by Joan Armatrading. As a singer in the 1970s, she was a true pioneer in the emancipation of black women, and she paved the way for her generation. Support the other women around you! I often help young women attorneys by coaching and mentoring them. We have to show solidarity as women, encourage one another, and take our responsibility in that area where we can.”
Tip 8: Get a man
“Be as subservient as possible: until a few decades ago, that was the advice that women received when they wanted to get a husband. Independence wasn’t appreciated. Luckily, men today appreciate women who are at the same level as themselves. I call that the ‘Clooney effect’. George Clooney fell in love with his wife Amal because she was both sexy AND smart: she’s a human rights lawyer. Make sure that you can support yourself, and that will make you more attractive.”