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Barriers To Women Taking The Bar Exam

The bar exam is a rite of passage and major source of stress for all new lawyers, but for women in the profession, there are unique challenges. When coupled with the standard challenges that exist for both genders, it’s clear that women face an uphill battle when it comes to passing the exam and pursuing long, successful careers in the Field.

Challenges Women Face

The bar exam is something that law students dread from the moment they enroll in law school until the second they receive confirmation of a passing score. And it doesn’t matter who you are, there are serious challenges associated with this career-defining test of aptitude and knowledge.

For starters, there’s the painstaking preparation that goes into studying for the exam. In the weeks leading up to the exam, you have to spend hours every day covering different subjects, answering questions, writing essays, addressing weaknesses, and refining strengths. And during this time, you also have to worry about your personal health, hygiene, and relationships. Stress becomes a huge issue and can easily overwhelm you if you aren’t careful.

Then there’s the process of packing for the exam and making sure you bring all of the materials you’ll need once your test week arrives. When your nerves are already shot, something as simple as this can send you over the edge.

But these are just normal challenges. They’re all fair because everyone has equal exposure. The problem is that women face even more distinct challenges. These gender barriers arguably make it more difficult for certain women to take and pass the bar. Specifically, two issues have taken center stage over the past couple of years:

Religious Head Coverings

It might sound crazy for this to still be a problem in 2017, but religious head coverings continue to be an issue. And it’s not just with the bar. According to Surgent, a provider of online exam resources, the CPA exam also has strict dress code regulations that seem to discriminate against women – and Muslim women in particular.

“Everyone knows that things like hats, hoods, scarves, and visors are not allowed to be worn during the bar exam,” Above the Law editor Staci Zaretsky acknowledges. “But religious headgear, like Sikh dastars and Jewish yarmulkes, is permitted, as long as special written approval has been obtained before the test from a state’s board of bar examiners.”

The problem is that some women are still occasionally harassed about their headwear after getting proper approval. This handicaps the individual taking the test and serves as an unnecessary distraction.

Accommodations for Breastfeeding

The second big issue is breastfeeding. Nursing mothers still face considerable challenges when it comes to breastfeeding in public – including during the bar exam. Thankfully some progress is starting to be made in this area.

The Montana Supreme Court recently ordered that bar administrators accommodate breastfeeding mothers “in a manner consistent with public policy and law.” The new rules allow for a 15-minute break every three hours for mothers. Clear documentation is required with the child’s birth date or expected date of birth and there’s still some uncertainty regarding the specifics of whether the clock stops and what sort of private and/or semi-private locations are available at test taking sites.

Advocating for Equality

The bar exam is the culmination of years of learning and months of preparation. It’s a shame that someone would face additional challenges in 2017 just because of their gender. As society continues to progress and women are given equal opportunities in more areas, it’s imperative that we address some of the gender barriers that exist in the bar exam. The sooner these problems are solved, the better.

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