Mahira Siddiqui

Now & Then: What It Means To Be A Feminist featuring Elizabeth Pederson

Elizabeth Pederson is the Founder and Inaugural President of Ms. JD. She graduated Order of the Coif with Pro Bono Distinction from Stanford Law School, where she was a Public Interest Fellow and the Symposium Editor on the Executive Board of the Stanford Law Review. Since graduation, Elizabeth clerked on the Northern District of California and served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan D.A’s Office. She will join the Trial Team of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office in January. Prior to law school, Elizabeth served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. She holds a M.P.A. from the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan as a Frey Foundation Fellow and a B.A. summa cum laude with highest honors from Brandeis University.

As my Residence draws to a close, I thought what better way to conclude this year’s blog than with a word from our founding mother, Ms. Pederson!

The obvious question, for those who don’t know, is what led to the founding of Ms. JD?

When I was a law student at Stanford, I was surprised that there wasn’t any kind of national organization for women law students. It seemed like a no brainer that it would be beneficial for female law students at different schools across the country to connect with one another and expand their networks. A blog seemed like the best way to provide access to the most people. Stanford was extremely supportive of the idea, and we were able to bring women representatives from twelve different law schools across the country to Stanford to talk about common experiences and brainstorm how to create a group that would both connect women law students nationwide and provide needed support to achieve equality in the legal profession.

What do you consider the most special aspect or project of Ms. JD?

I think the beauty of Ms. JD is that there is space for all involved to channel their ideas and passions to build something that is individually meaningful while promoting our broader mission. For me, personally, I really love the Global Education Fund. I feel so fortunate to be a woman born in the United States with the opportunities I have had, particularly to get an education. Stories about women deprived of an education, or even subjected to violence for seeking one, make me realize how different my life could have been if I had been born in a different place. I can pass along my gratitude by working to provide educational opportunities for women who are less fortunate. I think the Global Education Fund has resonated with a lot of people because it is a positive way to try to change the world not by trying to directly fix people’s problems or imposing a certain way of doing things, but by empowering people to find their own voices through education.

Can you talk about your experience practicing criminal law in NY and your transition into civil law in California?

I loved the Manhattan DA’s Office because I did meaningful work that made a difference in the community, worked with phenomenal attorneys, and got trial experience right out of the gate. The Manhattan DA’s Office takes prosecutorial responsibility seriously, and I felt like I was part of a team serving the community, which sometimes meant seeking jail for dangerous people and other times meant utilizing programs and other alternatives to try to support those who committed less serious crimes to make better choices and become productive members of society. Also, New York is a great place to practice because there is a lot of variety in the things that you see.  I am about to start at the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office in January as part of their trial team. I love being a trial attorney, and I’m looking forward to continuing to try cases and represent the public interest while expanding my practice into civil law.

What do you see as a persisting barrier for women in leadership positions (or in reach of said positions), and how can this be overcome?

You can’t help but notice that women are still not well represented in the top ranks of the legal profession from judges to law professors to law firm partners. Even though the lack of women is visible, the barriers to success are less so.  Previously women were not interviewed or considered for certain positions and were subjected to overt sexism. It wasn’t hard to figure out why women weren’t advancing. These days, women still aren’t equally represented, but the reasons are much harder to pinpoint.  

I think we are going up against something more invisible that’s deep in the social fabric of how we balance work and family. We’ve defined career success based on a model of devoting everything to a profession. This model was possible because men were the ones putting all they had into careers while women were home putting all they had into raising families. Now both women and men often want to have careers and participate meaningfully in family life instead of doing one to the exclusion of the other, but there are still the same number of hours in a day, and many professions still have the same expectations they always had. While some organizations are exploring flexible schedules and other ways of working differently, it still seems difficult for women and men to reach professional pinnacles while also spending the kind of time they would like to spend with their families. I think that if we can answer the question of how family responsibilities and career success can coexist for both women and men, then we’ll get to more of an equilibrium with women and men both succeeding in equal numbers in the profession.

Who is your modern day ‘now’ feminist leader and why?

Sheryl Sandberg always comes to mind because I like a lot of things she has to say about women taking responsibility for their careers and making decisions that lead to success in their respective professions. I also admire a lot of unsung heroes, women I’ve encountered who have built extremely successful careers, earned respect from supervisors and colleagues by virtue of their hard work, and plowed through seen and unseen barriers without any fuss.

An ever-growing blog, one successful leadership conference after another, umpteen networking events, rewarding projects, and a nominee for this year’s ABA Journal Top 100 Blawgs of 2012…. where do you see the ‘now’ generation taking Ms. JD in the next five years?

It is really exciting that Ms. JD has a number of new Board members and other volunteers. This influx of new energy is led by the amazing Katie Larkin-Wong, who assumed the presidency of Ms. JD earlier this year.  I have no doubt that they will take Ms. JD to some phenomenal places in the next five years while meeting the needs of the law students and new lawyers who Ms. JD serves. I think the biggest strength of Ms. JD’s vision has been, and continues to be, bringing women together to broaden networks, make connections, and create lasting friendships.

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