Editor’s note: We are thrilled to feature this wonderful letter from author Chandler Baker. Her latest novel, Whisper Network, is her first adult fiction release and was just selected as Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for July! It follows four women who speak out when their ill-reputed boss is slated to become CEO, which triggers catastrophic shifts throughout their company. This is a fantastic summer release, and Chandler Baker gives us a sneak peek into her inspiration for the novel below!
I reaped the benefit of my first whisper network when I was a summer associate at a law firm. At a work event, a much older partner was giving me an uncomfortable amount of attention. The other associates were leaving, but this partner and his friends kept encouraging me to stay with them at the bar. “How old are you?” they asked. (Twenty-four at the time, while they were over fifty, in case anyone wants to do that math.) “Do you like older men?” I was in a tricky situation—a summer associate is sort of like a well-paid intern vying for a full-time position, and networking is key. But in that moment, I felt more like a target, someone they hoped— assumed, really—would be a “good sport.” I felt myself doing that smiling and fake laughing thing that we all turn to in these moments. I wanted to leave, but I also wanted a job. And wanted to make sure this man felt—I don’t know—appeased? At the very least, not rejected.
Really, though, I remember less about those men and more about the woman who extracted me from the situation with a lot more grace and social skill than I possessed at the time. She had a charming Southern accent, a big, shiny smile, and as she joined the group she put her arm around my shoulder and told me quietly, “Go ahead and leave, I’ll take care of this.” So, I listened and I let her. The next day, a senior associate, having heard a version of what had happened, asked if I’d like to speak to HR. Answer: Absolutely not! Sure, his behavior was bad, but—sorry—this very influential partner was about to take part in the decision to hire me—or not. I later learned I wasn’t the first young woman to have a run-in, but because of the kindness of a few savvy women, I—and my career—survived unscathed.
It’s been like this as long as I can remember. Many years ago, I was the only woman on my college’s men’s rowing team. I was the coxswain (a.k.a. the person who yells at the rowers and steers the boat). As the only woman on the team, I was preoccupied with ensuring that I fit in. Nothing would ever bother or offend me. No way! Not me! One day, I sat around with the team. Admittedly, I’d gotten crossways with one of the boys over the previous few weeks and he’d been annoyed with me for reasons unknown. I reached for a slice of pizza and this boy—who was 6’5″—kicked me hard in the jaw, causing my teeth to snap together with a loud clack. His laugh was mean. Everyone else sat slightly dumbfounded, but silent. I was, of all things, mortified. As my eyes pricked with tears, I knew only that I didn’t want to do the “girly” thing—overreact. I clung desperately to the notion that I was the kind of girl who could hang. So I quietly got up, went to a different room, and never said another word about it. Little did I know that versions of this dynamic were playing out in bigger and smaller ways for so many women, and an echo of it would follow through my and every woman’s professional life—Play along! Don’t cause a scene!
Three years ago, I had a baby. Becoming a mother opened a whole new set of challenges at home and at work. Twelve weeks after my daughter’s birth, I returned to work. On my first day back, a new partner asked me to stay late. Around 7 p.m., when I told him more insistently I really did need to feed my newborn, he—a father of three—said, “How old is your daughter?” I said, “Oh, she’s three months.” And he responded, “Well, she’s not really a newborn anymore then.” I explained that either way she needed to eat. He magnanimously granted twenty minutes, completely oblivious to the fact that “feeding” meant with my breasts. That night, my husband drove thirty minutes to bring our daughter to the office, and I nursed her in the parking garage.
These are the kinds of things I discuss with my girlfriends, while I’m walking Town Lake with them at lunch or at book club or working out. I found myself discussing these stories so much that I started writing Whisper Network. As the story grew, I realized the book deserved a chorus, a voice for the collective women, beyond the women of my novel and beyond me. I called my best friend from law school, who told me about a compliance hotline that often threads complaints directly back to the very person complained about. I talked to my friend who returned from maternity leave to more than two thousand emails because no one helped while she was away. I spoke with an attorney, struggling with infertility, who was told point blank by a male partner that women are no longer useful to the firm once they’ve had children. All these stories became the book’s “we” narrator, a means to talk about the working woman experience, of which sexual harassment is certainly a piece, but not the ONLY piece.
As I was writing this book, I was—and still am—hopeful about how our attitudes toward sexual harassment have been changing. Interestingly, one of my good friends called me while I was finishing the first draft and asked if I could recommend an attorney to handle a sexual harassment claim for her. She told me an incident had occurred at a conference and, while she didn’t want to offer details, she hoped I could connect her with someone. I’m embarrassed to say that my first reaction was: Are you sure you want to do this? I felt terrible. I’m a lawyer and a writer who has spent countless hours contemplating speaking up about harassment, but I also cared about her wellbeing and knew that speaking up could still come with a high price. Particularly if a woman isn’t someone with a platform or any other ostensible form of protection, or if she holds other marginalized identities. But. Things are changing. Slowly, definitely unevenly, but I do think they are changing, thanks largely to the many brave women who have stopped whispering.
As women shared their stories with me, writing Whisper Network became a quasi–whisper network of its own. I look forward to sharing this book with readers who I hope will continue to expand the network in new ways.
Chandler Baker lives in Austin with her husband and toddler where she also works as a corporate attorney. She is the author of five young adult novels. Whisper Network, her adult debut, is available at your local Half Price Books and HPB.com. Learn more about Chandler and her work on www.chandlerbakerbooks.com/ or follow her on Instagram.