The Rapidian

Grand Rapids women who rock: Mary Ann Cartwright

Mary Ann Cartwright is a local advocate, leader and legal pioneer .
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"You Have to be You"

“All of us can be tigers when we have to be - it’s knowing your role. I call myself a tiger, but I’ve heard some of my colleagues say that I was a ‘bitch.’ I’ve heard those terms, and you know, again, they wouldn’t attribute that to my male counterpart, but I’ve had men tell me that they are really intimidated by me, but that’s their problem. You have to be you – and most people who reach that point in their career – whether it’s a lawyer, a doctor, a business person – they’ve attained a certain level because their tough-minded, and that’s what makes you successful.” 

 

-Mary Ann Cartwright

Mary Ann Cartwright, Attorney with Rhoades McKee, Chair of Labor and Employment Department

Mary Ann Cartwright, Attorney with Rhoades McKee, Chair of Labor and Employment Department

Mary Ann Cartwright is the kind of person you can learn a great deal from just by listening to her. She is a woman of immeasurable success. Intellectual, passionate, ambitious, and open-minded – there is no wonder she has achieved so much. In fact, most recently she was named one of the “Women in the Law 2015,” a nomination given to only the most triumphant women lawyers in Michigan.

  An attorney for the past 38 years, Mary Ann is no stranger to contests, which after talking with her, she not only welcomes, but often times uses to her advantage. In fact, her 34-year career with Grand Rapids law firm, Rhoades McKee began because of a challenge.

“I was hired because I had tried some [worker’ compensation] cases against my partners at Rhoades McKee and won,” Mary Ann said with a smile.

While the firm’s opening was in its workers’ compensation department, Mary Ann’s areas of expertise soon included employment law, which would very soon become her wheel well. It grew to such an extent that she had very little time to work on anything else. She has been the Chair of the Labor and Employment department at the firm since 1992.   

Having a successful career in a practice area that impacts so many, Mary Ann is very familiar with workplace issues, including gender discrimination, which she has seen creep its way into the workplace. Specifically, Mary Ann says that she has seen this issue affect pay, hiring, and promotion decisions.

“Pay discrepancies are huge and I think we continue to see them, even in the higher level of compensation for women. It just seems like men are given certain advantages that women are not,” she said.

While pay discrepancies can be found in all professions and in all states, 2014 statistics illustrate that Michigan women make 75% of what their male counterparts make.

According to Mary Ann, the only way to challenge and ultimately change these statistics are for women to take control of their pay early and often, and also to become leaders in the organizations in which they work.

“It can only change by women becoming more proactive about their own income, but also more women becoming part of the management, upper echelon process, and people thinking about compensation systems. The pay disparity begins when you get hired because ‘Joe’ has two kids and he is coming from a competitor and he demands a certain salary. ‘Mary’ is coming in and she is also coming from a competitor, but she probably isn’t as aggressive in demanding her salary or believing in her self-worth,” she said.

While Mary Ann believes this thought process is changing, she still finds that women tend to undervalue what they are worth, which ultimately sets them back.

“If you start behind your equal . . . it’s always hard to catch up,” she said.

Extremely passionate in her own career, Mary Ann knows firsthand that women tend to pay attention to the value they put into executing their work rather than what they are paid for doing it.

“I think that women are so focused on following their passions, that we probably don’t pay as much attention to being appropriately paid for what we do. And it is a hard fight, it really is, to assess that value and to be treated fairly, “ she said.

For that reason, Mary Ann says it’s critical that both employers and employees learn to value everyone – male and female. At Rhoades McKee, Mary Ann feels fortunate for its widespread diversity – from the executive committee to the associates - a workplace asset Mary Ann knows is not only important, but incredibly valuable.

“Having different sexes, different ages, different ethnicities, is important because people bring different things to the table. If you’re all the same – you aren’t bringing new and fresh ideas to the table,” she said.

A GVSU political science major (she was the youngest precinct delegate elected in Western MI!), Mary Ann worked for a full year to save money prior to starting law school at Thomas M. Cooley. Mary Ann said she decided to go to law school because of her passion for social justice and the opportunity to help others.

While in law school, she was one of only three women in her class! Despite having a difficult time getting the guys to welcome her into a study group and having professors challenger her, Mary Ann said she enjoyed law school. She attributes part of this to the fact that men didn’t intimidate her thanks to her forward-thinking father and growing up with four brothers.  

“My dad’s philosophy that a woman could do anything that a man could do – that helped a lot. Did I get intimidated? Sure, but I learned early on that you better have a strong poker face or you’ll get wiped on the floor, so I developed that early on,” she said.

Being a part of a small minority of women in law school wouldn’t be the last time that Mary Ann paved the way for a new generation of female attorneys. Prior to joining Rhoades McKee, Mary Ann worked for the city of Kalamazoo where she was the only female among eight attorneys. Additionally, there was only one female county prosecutor, so she rarely saw another female lawyer in court. There were no female judges at the time. While Mary Ann says that she had good relationships with the judges and her male colleagues that knew her skills and respected her, she sometimes felt gender bias from male clients.

“I felt that sometimes more from male clients than I did from my peers. I think that men that you work with tend to know you and understand your capabilities, but that client that’s never met you before, has never dealt with you before, comes with those same stereotypical issues that face everybody in the workplace. I don’t think that men tend to think of women as strong, aggressive, competent, it’s that whole different approach,” she said.

Mary Ann recounts one client in particular being taken aback by her strong stance against her opponents.

“I remember one of my clients saying to me, ‘oh, you were so nice when we met with you, but oh when you got in that deposition, you tore them apart! Wow! Where did that come from?’”

Without hesitation, she sums up this situation perfectly:

“All of us can be tigers when we have to be - it’s knowing your role. I call myself a tiger, but I’ve heard some of my colleagues say that I was a ‘bitch.’ I’ve heard those terms, and you know, again, they wouldn’t attribute that to my male counterpart, but I’ve had men tell me that they are really intimidated by me, but that’s their problem. You have to be you – and most people who reach that point in their career – whether it’s a lawyer, a doctor, a business person – they’ve attained a certain level because their tough-minded, and that’s what makes you successful.”

And if you think being an attorney is demanding on its own, try doing it as a single mother of two.

“My girls were 5 and 1 when I was divorced, and I’ve been a single parent since then. I was blessed with good support groups . . . and I learned to ‘bounce balls.’ I had this rule – when I came home, from the time we did dinner to the time they went to bed, that was their time. It means a lot of personal sacrifices too – you don’t get to see a lot of you’re friends – you’re busy, you’ve got these little children to raise who are important to you.”

While Mary Ann says it was certainly a juggling act, she looks back on those times fondly and is extremely proud of her daughters.

“Some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life are with my girls. They are both incredibly strong, independent, capable young women. Whether it’s modeling my behavior or a freak of nature – I don’t know, but I’m proud of both of them,” she said smiling.  

Mary Ann shared with me her best advice for other young women seeking success.

“Be true to yourself, be confident in who you are as a person, don’t be afraid to ask for advice, reach out to others, give back, be involved as much as you can in your work life, your private life, your friends’ lives, your religious life, and become a member of the community,” she said.

Mary Ann, who sits on a number of different boards, is deeply committed to community involvement and says volunteering your time is one of the best things you can do both morally as well as professionally. In fact, she attributes her community and the female mentors she’s met for helping to shape her.

“There are women in this community who I really respect a lot, who are talented, wonderful leaders. In the legal community, in the business community, some of our judges, there are some just really, really smart, good women, who are willing to talk to you, willing to help you, who want to see their female counterparts grow, and that’s what we need to continue to do.”

In fact, Mary Ann would dub one particular mentor as a “woman who rocks” - Federal Judge Janet Neff.

“She is an amazing woman. She is always willing to share, and I really respect her - I learned a lot from Janet. She was always willing to have lunch and to share – we kind of grew up as litigators together. She is just a very incredible person – smart, talented, really down to earth, willing to give back. Probably one of the neatest ladies you will ever meet in your entire life.”

Mary Ann, on behalf of Zonta, YOU are our WOMAN WHO ROCKS!

By Marisa Griggs, Zonta Club of Grand Rapids Member

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