By Anna Johansson • October 27, 2017•Issues, Other Issues
When Michelle Obama addressed graduates at the historically Black Tuskegee University in 2015, it was no surprise that she offered a variation of the old “twice as good” speech. Passed down by Black parents for generations, the idea is that as a person of color, you need to be twice as good as your white peers to get half as far.
While it may seem overly pessimistic to offer such advice to new graduates, the idea holds – and it applies to more than just Black students. For any woman trying to break into a male-dominated field like law, the same advice holds true. You have to be that much more aggressive, and that much smarter, to get even a modest break within the profession.
The Pink Ghetto
Female lawyers are regularly sequestered into a narrow set of specializations: family law, immigration law, and similar “soft” sectors. We’re regularly infantilized, called by pet names, and told we “look like [we’re] twelve.” All of this is to say that, despite our credentials and any personal achievements within our field, as women lawyers, we’re expected to be quiet and let the men do the talking. We aren’t viewed as experts.
This discrimination is only amplified when we take on cases that require the presentation of technical data, whether regarding finance data, engineering, or even crime scene evidence. Women lawyers are interrupted more frequently, even in Supreme Court oral arguments, and men are treated deferentially. Even an increase in women on the Supreme Court seems to have minimal impact on this difference.
Woman As Expert
When preparing for a court case, all good lawyers spend time delving into relevant topics and absorbing new information, but even when an expert witness is going to be on the stand, we still need to be knowledgeable enough to question them. But it’s hard for us to get our footing, no matter the circumstances, because of interruptions and judge and jury bias.
Take, for example, a hypothetical finance-related case. In order to argue that fraud occurred, we need to be able to discuss stock movement patterns – one of the most interesting of which are double and triple flats, known as Elliott Waves. These waves indicate an upcoming market reversal. It’s an easy enough pattern to decipher if you can track the graphs and understand the math, but there are several problems for women lawyers and even expert witnesses in such a case.
Women make up just a quarter of financial advisers and stock brokers, and hold only 20% of leadership positions, but are also less likely to make serious mistakes, to make more money for their clients, and to be fired for even a minor mistake. In many ways, finance mirrors law in its prejudice against women, and when the two fields meet in the courtroom, the bias against women is strong. Anything a female expert witness says in regards to finance data is likely to be perceived as incorrect and uninformed. It’s just the shape of sexism in the professions.
A Real Expert
Women make up just 20% of expert witnesses because we are persistently viewed as less authoritative, and it’s largely male lawyers who are responsible for this bias as they hire most experts. The entire legal community, though, is responsible for correcting this trend, for hiring female experts and paying them equally. To do so is to overcome stereotyping, a powerful force, even in the most public settings.
When Obama hesitated to name Elizabeth Warren as head of the newly created CFPB in 2010, NOW raised an important question – are we seeing anti-woman bias from the leader of our country? It seemed likely, considering Warren’s substantial expertise in the area and tireless effort on the part of working families. As they say, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? When faced with a forceful woman like Warren, one who accuses the CEO of Wells Fargo of “gutless leadership,” men cower but they also lash out.
As women, aggression and expertise must go hand-in-hand if we’re going to defeat the bias of the courtroom; the one that not only tells us we look like we’re twelve but also treats us as though we’re still in middle school. We have to be twice as good and push twice as hard. We have to insist on our expertise and refuse interruption. And we have to speak about how we are treated.
As lawyers, we’ve found an opportunity to give voice to the oppressed, but we shouldn’t forget to speak up for ourselves when we’re treated unfairly.