Yesterday I attended a thought-provoking discussion about how to move beyond dialogue to address gender, age, and racial bias in the legal profession. It should be surprising to absolutely no one that in 2016, women attorneys still encounter misogyny on a daily basis. Nor should it give you pause to understand how this is compounded for women of color, older women, queer women, and women with disabilities.
Here in Washington, about 45% of all lawyers are women compared to 36% nationally. Yet women – especially women of color – flee the profession in droves after a few years. Who wouldn’t leave a profession in which 44.7% of all associates nationally are women, and yet only 21.5% are partners, and only 18% are equity partners? Why stay in a profession in which all women earn 77 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts, and in which women equity partners still earn a mere 80 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts with similar books of business?
Let’s get candid, shall we, about women’s experiences in the law. Here’s a mere sampling of experiences I have heard female attorneys describe:
Being mistaken for the court reporter or administrative staff
Being called “honey” by one’s client, opposing counsel, and judge
Being scolded from the bench, and having one’s commitment to their client questioned, for having a pressing childcare issue
Being called “sassy” or “saucy” (each of which carries sexual connotations) for speaking up
Being passed over when introducing new clients to the firm
Being excluded from invitations to social opportunities where business is discussed
Being called “cute” in a professional setting
Being questioned about parenthood choices and priorities in situations in which a man would never be questioned (I have yet to meet a man who lost a contract or job opportunity because the employer or client worried he might want to have children in the next few years)
Being told how to dress or how not to dress, like ….
Being told to wear pink because it softens your appearance, and then connecting better with the jury because the pink touches in that suit, in fact, softened your appearance (apparently jurors need lawyers not only to be competent, but to fit comfortably within gender stereotypes)
Being critiqued for speaking up too much, too loudly, not enough, or not loudly enough (when and how to speak up seems to be a popular topic of feedback for women that my male colleagues say they don’t hear much about)
Facing a presumption of incompetence and being treated with surprise for being competent
In my career, I’ve also been told that women founders don’t face any unique barriers in launching ventures, that there is no difference in how women and men CEOs are treated by their boards, that it’s best for society when women choose family over career, and that women would occupy more positions of leadership if they didn’t choose family over career. That’s right sisters, we are damned when we do, and damned when we don’t.
So, why stay? Here are my three reasons:
First, lawyers hold a tremendous amount of privilege and power which can be used for tremendous good. Leaving the profession concedes this privilege and power to others.
Second, women bring unique insight, experience, and talents to solving problems. Those gifts are needed in every area of law.
Third, sticking it out paves the way for others traditionally marginalized from and within the practice of law. We need more trailblazers.
And here are a few ideas for how we can stick it out, together:
Build a network with other women lawyers with whom you can vent, strategize, give, and receive support. Be there for each other.
Get involved with organizations – like Washington Women Lawyers – that actively work to dismantle barriers for women in the legal profession.
Learn about intersectionality and own the privilege you bring to a given situation. Make space for other women – especially women of color – to be seen, heard, and valued.
Finally, when you need a little levity and inspiration (don’t we all?), enjoy a little Notorious RBG, which pays homage to perhaps the most badass doyenne of them all.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours?