By Rachel Oliver • June 05, 2015•Features, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law
Women in the legal profession today no longer face the challenges that were encountered 25-30 years back. However, there are still several unique, gender-based issues they have to face. Women lawyers, especially younger lawyers are judged and compared to their male counterparts almost always.
While aggressive women attorneys are often judged as harsh and unpleasant, the passive or those not aggressive enough are termed as weak and someone who lacks self-confidence to do the job. Women attorneys are also criticized for lacking physical attributes like weight, height and/or a deep voice, which are considered to convey experience and authority in the profession and our society as a whole.
Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” it is really unfortunate to see that women legal practitioners have to face these issues even today. This discrimination is just unique to female lawyers. Minority attorneys such as African American, Hispanic and Asian American attorneys too face similar challenges.
According to the California Minority Counsel Program, although the percentages of minority and women associates have increased over the past few years, only a small percentage of these legal professionals became a partner at their firms.
If seen closely such issues are often faced by women working in aggressive, male dominant professions. The Silicon Valley sex discrimination case is one of the recent examples where a female venture capitalist claimed that her former employer passed “her over for the position of senior partner while her male colleagues were promoted.”
Although the jury gave the verdict that decision of not promoting Kleiner Perkins was not gender-based, the incident once again brought the issues faced by women in the “boys' club culture of Silicon Valley.”
The issues related to gender inequality in legal profession has been an ongoing research and action. It is true that women’s entrance into law fields has significantly increased over the past few decades. Women attorneys made up 32.9 percent of all lawyers in 2014 but they remained under-represented in leadership positions across sectors of this profession. According to ‘Sex Discrimination in the Legal Profession: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ by Audrey Wolfson Latourette, only 17 percent female lawyers account for the top U.S. law firms’ equity partners.
Challenges Faced By Female Attorneys
Several female attorneys, including some of the successful female criminal defense attorneys were asked about the challenges they faced in their profession, especially during the first few years of practice. Most of them share some common experiences:
It Affected Their Career: Almost all of them were stunned to know that gender has strongly affected their career graph. While entering the profession these female lawyers believed that gender discrimination or sexism was a thing of the past. And they were disheartened to find out that it still lives in a more subtle form.
Intimidated by Male Colleagues: Women lawyers have largely been the target of several intimidation methods from their male colleagues at some point during their career. The male counterpart often use these “bully tactics” instead of arguing facts to gain a strategically advantage in his case.
It is not Unique to Female Lawyers: While it is true that women attorneys often have to face overly aggressive and antagonistic adversary in their workplace, these issues are not unique to women. As mentioned, other minority attorneys face them too. That being said, such behavior does pose special challenges for women attorneys.
For example, if the opposing counsel is a male and needlessly argumentative, a male client may often start doubting ability of a woman lawyer on his case. This happens mostly because the male client forms an opinion about the female lawyer solely by observing the way she interacts with the opposing counsel. Besides, a female associate is mostly judged by the tone of her response instead of the substance she presents.
Intertwining of Career and Gender Affects both Personal and Professional Life: Balancing family with work obligations is something that applies to both genders. However, women associates generally face a more significant challenge than their male counterparts. This issue, again, is not unique to legal profession.
Women from almost all professional field have faced such issues at some point of their life.
Women needs to reconcile career goals with family demands and often end-up (sometime forcefully/unwillingly) sacrificing one for other. Some female attorneys complained that the worst kind of gender discrimination offenders are the partners in their own firms. The problem is more acute where partners are “old school.” They usually fail to recognize the volume of demands placed on female associates both at home and in the workplace.
Many would argue that most law firms today have official “family friendly” policies and allow associates part-time schedules, which is indeed beneficial for women (and men too) associates to meet family demands without sacrificing their career goals. However, most lawyers including female lawyers are reluctant to leverage this policy because of the fear of professional repercussions. A lot of female legal practitioners reported that selecting part-time option poses professional risks and can jeopardise their career and prospects for promotion.
Besides, lawyers (both male and female) opting for part-time schedules are perceived as less serious and less committed to their profession in comparison to their full-time counterparts. Another issue with part-time scheduling is that these lawyers are paid a part-time salary although work usually expands beyond their agreed-upon hours. Worst still, there is no corresponding increase in their compensation and as a result, they become victims of ‘schedule creep’.
It is indeed unfortunate to see that such stereotypes are still shaping perception of legal professionals in our country. The worst blow of gender discrimination comes when a female attorney is ‘misidentified’ as a non-lawyer by clients. The problem is even more acute for colored and multicultural women lawyers who by far experience the worst kind of barriers to growth, advancements and career opportunities.
Although there are barriers facing female lawyers, no one can deny that women attorneys have achieved significant progress into this profession. The number of women entering law school is nearly equal to me now. Despite that, many female lawyers still experience unequal treatment and subtle discrimination in the workplace, forcing them to leave their law firms in search of more hospitable work environments or in worst cases, leave the profession altogether.
The good news is that law firms have started understanding the importance of retaining and promoting women associates and are now encouraging diversity in the workplace. Although this is just the beginning, there is tremendous hope for women associates in the future.
Author Bio: Rachel Oliver is a criminal defence lawyer with in-depth knowledge of the niche. She follows her passion by keeping a tab on the latest happenings in her niche and moonlights as a writer. You can read her write-ups on several websites. Feel free to get in touch with her on Google+.