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Joseph Bottitta of Genova Burns urges women to hang out and talk feminism with the guys

Joseph A. Bottitta, Genova Burns ethics counsel.-(GENOVA BURNS)

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a Women’s Initiative luncheon at Genova Burns in Newark. This was the first time I had ever delivered such a presentation on my own (devoid of fellow panelists), and I was excited to learn that because I am 26, a single woman and a reporter that researches and writes about issues concerning women…But a man in the crowd didn’t buy it (at first). Joseph Bottitta — who serves as Ethics Counsel to the firm — said it seemed as if I was just using my personal perspective and background to address and enlist only those with the same experiences.

Why, Bottitta asked, wasn’t I tailoring my questions to those in charge — namely, older men? Wouldn’t they be the ones that needed to hear what I had to say, lest they actually use their given power to address the issues?

This, of course, caused a heated debate. And while the women in the room roared, the men remained silent.

But I actually tended to agree with him. I am, in fact, a firm believer that men should not only attend these events, but speak up — as Bottitta did.

My counterargument, however, was that trying to convince or influence men who are set in their ways is a more difficult, if not futile, effort. What I believe is more effective is speaking to the men and women who are positioned to become the decision makers so that when they are in charge, the right choices are finally made.

Still, I wanted to learn more about what Bottitta had said. So I stayed to speak with him after the presentation to learn, to discuss and to ask questions.

I learned that Bottitta, a graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law, is now a member of Genova Burns’ Complex Commercial Litigation, Commercial Real Estate & Redevelopment, Business Law & Commercial Transactions and Alternate Dispute Resolution practice groups.

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He previously led New Jersey Lawyer Services, served as the 100th president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and was appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Special Committee on Attorney Ethics and Admissions.

So today, I write this Q&A to provide the perspective of a man who — despite being older, white and with authority — has been supporting, mentoring and encouraging diverse leaders throughout his entire career.

Meg Fry: Over the course of your career, how have you influenced and supported women and minorities around you?

Joseph Bottitta: When I passed the bar in 1974, I didn’t see a differentiation (between genders or race) — I just believed the right people should advance. As the years went on, I noticed that wasn’t happening. So, I made a conscious effort to identify those who perhaps needed an extra push due to their gender or race. And I just continued to do that over the next 40 years.

It was important for me to get to a position where I could do something about what I felt needed to be done — to be able to appoint people to committees and encourage people to get involved. Once I got to that position of authority, I’d either appoint people or I’d visit the nominating committees and say, ‘I would like to see so-and-so as the chair of this committee,’ or ‘the next secretary,’ knowing full well that in three to five years, they’d be elected president.

MF: What advice would you give to young working women today?

JB: Find what makes you happy and go for it. Don’t be afraid to establish a goal, but also don’t make it your ultimate goal. You need to find intermediate steps.

People also don’t know what you want, so you need to be able to verbalize what your interests and objectives are and what you’d like to achieve. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘If you need someone for this job or task, I am your person.’ All too often, young people in general tend to feel that they have to wait their turn or be approached or need someone to reach out to them. But people don’t know what you want until you tell them.

Be careful, though, not to be too aggressive or egotistical — that will only work in the opposite direction.

MF: Have the attitudes toward women changed much in your industry?

JB: There are still obstacles (for women) to overcome, but they’re different now. They’re the same, but different, if that makes sense — same issues, different sub-issues. New walls have been put up because people’s goals and ideals have changed.

Back when I was a young attorney, women wanted to make senior partner. Now, both women and men want more well-rounded lives. They have different goals. They still want to be partner, but not necessarily in charge because that requires a different mindset.

When I was coming up, everybody wanted to be the boss and as a result, our families and our social lives suffered because we were all single-goal oriented. Now, thank goodness, people realize there’s more to life than just that single goal.

Which is why I’ve always been a big proponent of intermediate goals. You need to achieve one goal in order to go for the next one.

MF: What would you say are the top five traits that successful women always have?

JB: Intelligence and self-assurance, or confidence in themselves. They don’t view themselves as different. They’re not afraid to take a chance and fail, or leave their comfort zone. They’re willing to let their personality control who they are.

If you’re not sure of yourself, it just doesn’t work because you’re not happy.

That’s a different answer than the one I would have given 30 years ago. Back then, women weren’t aggressive or self-assured — they were just happy to be where they were when they got there. Now, both women and men realize they have other interests, there’s more to do and want that time and flexibility to expand and grow.

MF: What are some missteps that women often take in the workplace?

JB: When anyone makes a decision, they can either be right or wrong — but 50 percent is good odds. So take a shot! You can’t be paralyzed by indecision. You have to identify what you think will make you happy and if you end up being wrong, you have to be flexible and willing and smart enough to change directions.

MF: What do you think is keeping women from holding or gaining more leadership positions?

JB: For one thing, I never understood the salary gap. I can’t wrap my head around that one. A person is worth what they are worth, so — I just don’t get it.

But women need to be more comfortable in their skills to create counter arguments to standard questions. For example, if an employer says, ‘You can’t give me the 75 hours a week that is required of this leadership position,’ women might need to be able to say, ‘I may not be able to give you a five-day work week, but I promise you that in four days, I can give you five days’ worth of work … I’m smarter and I’m able to get through my tasks that much quicker. I know what to look for because my education and background have provided me that.’

You have to have a sense of worth, sell yourself and be aggressive — and you need to believe what you’re saying. That might be it — often times, women tend not to be passionate about themselves. Men don’t usually fail to be full of themselves, because they tend to think what’s the worst that could happen?

Women also have to be able to hear ‘no’ without personalizing it, too. They need to be able to put it behind them and move on.

MF: Some women’s initiatives and events are often criticized for being ineffective venues for real change—how should women’s issues be addressed instead?

JB: Men are often afraid to say what they think because they’re afraid to offend — and sometimes, people may be sexist without even realizing. So women need to interact with men in leadership roles — especially those who are older — so that these men can be educated.

Conversely, young women can be educated as to what goes on in these men’s minds. Men aren’t going to tell you because they don’t want to be offensive due to ignorance and a lack of interaction. That’s why young women need to get older men to attend these events, and then, make them comfortable. Yes, that sounds insulting and condescending — these are, after all, the men that are holding them down — but it’s all about understanding the game. You have to start somewhere, and in order to break down the barriers, a dialogue needs to happen in which everybody understands what everybody is thinking. Everyone needs to feel comfortable in order for this to happen.

To me, it’s not a structured dialogue. It’s not something where we can put together an agenda and move on from issue to issue discussing solutions. I’m actually a big fan of informal bullshit and alcohol (tongue-in-cheek)—when you strip away the formality of a presentation, maybe some of what I’m spewing might make somebody go, ‘Wow, that makes sense to me.’ But it’s never going to happen during a presentation in which I have to get up and speak for seven minutes. Everything needs to be made more informal.

Events and organizations that help women learn how to play golf or poker, for example, are great. But there should also be events that help teach men something that is traditionally female-oriented. I think those are fun and clever ways to encourage joint interaction. The concepts are wonderful.

Until we all understand where all of our heads are, there can’t be proper dialogue. I encourage women to talk to their male colleagues in informal settings and ask, ‘What are your thoughts on feminism?’ And ask if they have any ideas. 

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