Carol Hague witnessed a lot of change for women in the workplace throughout the last 40 years.
CLEARWATER - When Carol Hague first began working in law firms in 1973, women were not allowed to wear pants.
“And this was not a Letitia Baldridge kind of thing,” Hague said, referring first to Baldridge, an American etiquette expert who served as Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary. “It was a Hugh Heffner kind of thing.”
The men made it tough for women who wanted to be lawyers, she said.
“I can vividly remember my first boss saying to me, ‘Just so you know, I don’t think women should be working unless they need to help their husbands put food on the table. They should be home in the kitchen, having children.’ So in 40 years, it has changed a lot.”
Throughout Hague’s years working her way up as a professional woman – now serving as chief operating officer of Johnson, Pope, Boker, Ruppel & Burns, LLP in Clearwater – she has seen much change in the workforce for women. Even as there is yet more that can improve.
Hague’s office at the law firm is filled with jokes about what it means to be a business administrator, from petting alligators to “I work hard so you don’t have to.” But basically, she makes sure that all the lawyers have to do is solve client problems. She manages all the moving parts in the background.
“A law firm is kind of like a bicycle,” Hague said. “Two wheels: One is the practice wheel, and one is the business wheel, and they have to turn roughly at the same speed and direction, or the whole thing crashes.”
The lawyers want to focus on solving client problems and on billing time. Somebody else has to make sure that bills are going out, bills are getting paid and that staff are where they’re supposed to be, she explained.
“And so I’m kind of the director. Making sure that everybody in their play does their job and plays their role properly,” she said.
Hague didn’t mean to get into business administration. Or even the law business. She wanted to be a doctor. Hague started out in college as a pre-med student, but midway through her sophomore year, she discovered that she was colorblind and therefore could not pass cellular biology.
She gave up a scholarship and began working at Fowler White Law Firm in St. Petersburg in 1973 and finished her college degree at night at USF. When she started at the firm, she wanted to go to law school.
“So I had this plan back in the ’70s that I would work there for 10 years, then would cash out and go to law school,” Hague said.
But she kept getting discouraged. She was told: “There are no female lawyers,” “There are no female trial lawyers,” “You know that it’s going to be harder for you to do that.”
“I had a pretty serious accident in 1984, and that kind of changed everything for me. And by then, I was already involved in office administration, so I thought, well, I’ll just keep doing that,” she said.
Hague said that she was in the first generation where mothers – like her own – really encouraged their daughters to go to college.
“My mother said ‘You need to go to college. But you also need to have kids,’” Hague said. “Not (that) both of those things happened for me, but my age group was the first to get that mixed message: you need to have a career, but you also need to have children. And I just never thought it was possible (for me) to do both and do it well.”
Back in those days, there were only two female lawyers in St. Petersburg, and Hague still remembers them by name. There weren’t many women in the workforce at all, and many of the men tried to drive out the women who did try to work, she said.
In her early career, Hague wasn’t called by her first name. Or her last name. Instead, the men in her office called her “Blondie.”
“They called me that on a regular basis,” Hague said. “That was my name. ‘Hey, Blondie.’”
Hague’s sister is a number of years younger than her, and she was horrified when she found that out. She wanted Hague to stand up for herself and the women’s movement and refuse to let them call her that. but Hague said that that’s just how things were back then, and it wasn’t specific to her particular workplace.
“It was just Florida,” Hague said. “It was the south. There were no women lawyers. There were no women doctors. There were no professional women.”
In fact, there were no rules for appropriate behavior in the workplace until 1991 when Anita Hill became a national figure by alleging that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas made harassing sexual statements when he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education. Even though Thomas was still confirmed to the court, Hill’s testimony set fire to the issue of addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Some of the biggest challenges back in the ’70s and ’80s, maybe a little bit broader, was to be accepted for your capabilities and work,” Hague said. “Because back then, there was more emphasis on your appearance for a woman than on any accomplishments.”
In 1978, Hague was promoted to office manager, and she has climbed the ladder ever since, making it to the top as COO at Johnson Pope. This shows how much times have changed, she said, because she never would have gotten this type of position a few decades ago. She worked at Fowler White for 18 years, from 1973 to 1990, and then worked for the Bar Association and did some contract work for risk management in nursing homes and some malpractice records work before she came to Johnson Pope in 1993.
“I’m very grateful for everything that I’ve accomplished and received,” Hague said. “And I would say that the biggest blessing I have ever had in my life, other than being the mother of five dogs, was coming to Johnson Pope.”
A lot has changed for women in the workplace in 40 years, but also the law business itself has changed a lot.
“I think one of the most significant things is that lawyers tend to have a reputation for charging people by the minute,” Hague said. “But the first time I ever saw a time sheet at all was in 1978, and that was because the insurance companies required it. So lawyers didn’t invent this system. It was put upon them by corporate America to justify ‘Why are you charging me money?’ So in the late ’70s is when it really became a business where you had to justify your time.”
Another huge change came with the surge of technology and the Internet.
“Today I think it’s dynamically different because our clients are so much more sophisticated as consumers,” Hague said. “There is so much more on the Internet to allow people to solve their own problems. So it’s become a much more competitive industry. We really have to distinguish ourselves as being worth the trip.”
In addition to her regular job, Hague also has taught classes in office management at St. Petersburg College for 30 years. In that time, she has taught thousands of students. The dean has told her that this is the most important thing Hague has done with her life because of the impact she has had on so many young people.
Hague loves her job and says it is a good career for women.
“I think because it is all about solving problems,” Hague said. “Identifying and solving problems and making sure that you really nurture your clients so they can get back to being whole and healthy. And it’s about taking care of everything that you can, and that is what women do. I think that also, women tend to be more patient and intuitive, like intuitively knowing that I need to ask one more question to figure out what’s going on here. I think that really helps with solving legal problems.”
Today, there are about 90 employees in her office, and more than half of them are women – throughout all levels and positions. For young women starting out, Hague encourages them to try their hardest to graduate at the top of their class, and ensure they are respected for their work and intellect. Also, seek out women role models, she added.
“I think every woman needs a female friend who’s younger and a friend who’s older,” Hague said. “So you can get the perspective. ‘What’s it going to be like when I get older?’ ‘Gee, I can help you as a younger person navigate and avoid doing the things that I did that were stupid.’”