At the Annual Summit of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers (“FAWL”), a group of women lawyers and judges gathered to discuss the results of the 2015 Young Lawyers Division of The Florida Bar’s (“YLD”) Survey on Women in the Legal Profession (“Survey”). The Survey consisted of a random sample of more than 3,000 female lawyers of the YLD. More than 400 lawyers, approximately fifteen percent (15%) of the sample, responded to the Survey. The women attorneys who responded had been practicing law for five or less years (76%), were in private practice (67%), had minor children (24%), were caretakers (4%), and were active in The Florida Bar (53%) or a local/voluntary bar association (47%). The Survey was designed to assess the status of women in the legal profession with respect to their experiences in law firm culture, the courtroom and their personal lives, as well as to assess women’s advancement in pay equality and career advancement. To the surprise of some, the Survey revealed what most women already knew–not much has changed in the legal field for women lawyers since The National Association of Women Lawyers’ (“NAWL”) 2006 Report: First National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (“2006 NAWL Survey”). Women attorneys continue to experience gender bias and pay inequality at all stages in their career.
At the Summit, thirteen past presidents of FAWL and over forty FAWL members engaged in a roundtable discussion of the results of the Survey and compared their own personal experiences from the 1970’s to today. Ms. Linda Carol Singer (FAWL President 1980-81) noted that in the beginning of her career it was difficult for women attorneys to be taken seriously. At that time, there was only a small number of practicing female attorneys in Florida and gender bias was obvious in the comments she received from other members of the Bar and the Bench. Ms. Debra Weiss Goodstone (FAWL President 1982-83) reminded the younger lawyers that during the 1970’s and 1980’s women were not allowed to wear pants in court because “pant suits” were forbidden by the (male) judges. In addition, as Ms. Weiss Goodstone stated “there wasn’t a time where there wasn’t a sexual comment . . . [the comments] were intended as friendly banter, but [the comments] were meant to remind you that you were not part of the boys’ club.” During this time, FAWL was viewed cautiously by the leadership of The Florida Bar. Ms. Weiss Goodstone laughingly described how FAWL was viewed as “trouble makers” and “bra burners.” Just a few later in 1989, Ms. Edith G. Osman (FAWL President 1989-90) was asked why women lawyers even needed their own group since women were now approximately one-third of graduating law school classes. Ms. Sharon Bleier Glickman (FAWL President 1996-97) reflected on this 1980s time as “the good old boys club, where women could sit at the table (FAWL Board of Governors seat), but could not eat–which meant that FAWL could not vote at the Board of Governors meetings.” Ms. Caryn Goldenberg Carvo (FAWL President 1994-95) advised the attendees that “in those days there was still an old boy/bubba network that met the night before The Florida Bar meetings where all the work and drinking got done.” At that time, the Board of Governors did not view ambitious behavior by women positively. Ms. Carvo explained that the Board of Governors wanted women in leadership roles, “but not aggressive women.”
Unfortunately, not much seems to have changed at the front lines of the legal profession. Women lawyers still experience sexist and demeaning comments, our clothes are subject to judicial decree, and our achievements are sidelined as we are referred to as “assistants,” “little lady lawyer,” and “sweetheart.” However, women have made some significant advances in the leadership of The Florida Bar. As illustrated by Florida Bar President, Bill Schifino, as of 2016 women represent 37% of the Florida Bar, which is up by 10% from 2000. Women currently make up 48% of The Florida Bar Committee Appointments, 40% of Committee Chairs, 39% of Committee Chair-Elect positions, 27% of Section/Division Chairs and 50% Section /Division Chair-Elect positions. Despite these successes, the underlying culture of bias in the legal profession remains embedded and continues to thwart the careers of women lawyers.
The Survey Says: gender bias and pay inequity still here
The standard for equality between the sexes is made in the male image. Ostensibly gender neutral laws and policies implicitly embody a masculine standard against which women are measured. At the beginning of the modern period, political and civil ‘equality’ was construed as a relationship between men, between the ‘individuals’ who possessed the natural capacities to enjoy this standing in public life. After all, women are the ‘different sex,’ not men.
CULTURE OF BIAS:
Of the 400 women who responded to the Survey, 43% reported experiencing gender bias, 40% reported experiencing employer or supervisor insensitivity,” 37% reported a lack in work/life balance, and 17% reported experiencing harassment. Some of the respondents provided examples of the aforementioned experiences, but did not label the experience as gender bias, “insensitivity” or harassment, while other respondents attempted to minimize or manage their experiences as merely an aspect of the legal profession’s culture. For example, respondents provided the following accounts of bias by judges (male and female): (i) refusing to provide breaks to pump breast milk; (ii) referring to women as “my boss’s assistant,” “blondie” in front of an entire courtroom, “sweetheart”; (iii) insisting on women wearing skirts and panty hose with no painted fingernails; and (iv) denying continuances for pregnancy. Employer bias was described as follows: (i) inappropriate sexual comments including, “drunk dials,” hired “because I am pretty,” and that “the firm should’ve vetted me more carefully when I couldn’t get a particularly slippery bottle of water open at a function (I was carrying his beer and two plates of food as well);” (ii) derogatory and demeaning labels such as being mistaken or assumed to be the court reporter, assistant, paralegal, and referred to as “schoolgirl,” “honey,” “dear,” “little lady,” and “sweetheart”; and (iii) verbal and physical abuse in the form of public berating (using profanity), having pleadings thrown at you, making fun of culture and traditions, and racial bias.
In addition, the women also commented on the lack of a balance between their work and their personal lives. Despite what some might assume, the issue of balance was not limited to lawyers who are caretakers. Of the respondents, 70% did not have children and were not a caretaker of another person, but 37% reported that the lack of an appropriate balance between work and personal life was an issue of concern, and 42% responded that balancing family and work was the most significant challenge they face as an attorney. One respondent noted “I think it is often assumed that I will be available to work 24 hours a day because I am not married and do not have children.” Others noted similar attitudes, “since I was single, I could work late nights and weekends, easily,” and alternative work schedules being available only “to those with children, although the policy is written more broadly; since I don’t have a ‘family,’ I was told it would look like I wanted to do less work than the other associates.” For those with children and family, the reality of maternity leave, “flex time” and working from home are not always the panacea of the working mother. For example, women have commented: (i) “that as soon as I return back to work, I am expected to maintain the same schedule and long hours that I have always put in with little regard for the 9 week old baby or two year old that I have at home;” (ii) “even when I was in the hospital . . . I was expected to check my email and promptly respond, I frequently received calls from the office while on medical leave and vacation;” and (iii) “when I became a mother, my opportunities diminished by more than 50%; I was not put on travel cases; the first thing any male attorney asked me about was my baby, it was like I was a different person in my colleagues’ eyes.”
The balance of work and life are often presented as a “choice” made by the female attorney. For example, in response to the question regarding the experience of gender bias or lack of recognition of work/life balance, several respondents commented “What are we – lilting flowers that can’t stand up to the day-to-day rigors of the world we live in? Grow up. Get a set. Move on. No matter what choices a person (notice I did not say ‘a woman’ makes), there are going to be consequences, more or less opportunities or different opportunities. That includes having a family as somebody has to raise those kids! Whose job is that if it isn’t Mom or Dad??” However, up until the last few decades, the predominant view was that lawyers could not reasonably be expected to charge for more than 1200 to 1500 hours per year. Recent surveys, however, report that almost half of private practitioners bill over 2000 hours per year. Clearly there has been shift in the expectation of reasonableness, but the cause of that shift remains unknown. Although history would suggest that there is the possibility of achieving a balance between work and life without sacrificing quality work and life experience, contemporary lawyers have been unable to achieve that balance due to the politics of gender bias remaining in the definition of the “quality of work” and ‘quality of life.”
According to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, as of 2014, women lawyers were paid 83% of what male lawyers were paid. Female attorneys of color are at a further salary disadvantage from the day they accept their first job, typically earning only 75% of what male white lawyers earn. “[C]ompensation is the prism through which bias-both overt and subtle-against female attorneys of color can be measured. Furthermore, it is the most obvious metric by which to effectively judge the progress being made toward the achievement of parity between female attorneys of color and their white male counterparts.” We know in the abstract that this wage disparity exists at every level of a woman’s legal career, what we don’t know are the factors firms use in setting compensation for associates, partners, and equity. Compensation systems lack transparency.
In the Survey, even though national statistics hold otherwise, the respondents did not overwhelmingly believe that they were being paid less than their male counterparts. Only 21% felt that they were not being paid comparably to a male counterpart, and only 19% thought that they were not being elevated comparably to a male counterpart. However, several women did comment that managing partners had advised them that: (i) “they did not have to worry about making money since [they] would get married one day;” (ii) “I should be thankful for making less because I’d pay less alimony in divorce;” and (iii) “the Equal Pay Act is being violated by a lot of law firms, especially the ones who hire staff attorneys to do substantially the same job as associates for two-thirds of the price. Overall, despite the liberal maternity leave policies, female attorneys in Big Law struggle with traditional law firm model and old school mentality.” Given the secrecy regarding compensation, bonuses and partnership structure, it is possible that the respondents were not sufficiently aware of the circumstances of their compensation and evaluation.
SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING FORWARD:
Many of the respondents to the Survey wanted more day-time networking, access to mentors and sponsors, and leadership opportunities. They want to connect to other women who are experiencing similar instances of bias to find support. At the Annual Summit, many FAWL members echoed the importance of connecting to other women lawyers and becoming involved in the local community, as well the legal community. Judge June C. McKinney (FAWL President 2005-06) made a point of highlighting the importance of obtaining male mentors or sponsors who are involved in leadership positions, not merely mentors. As noted by Judge McKinney, a sponsor is “someone who gets to go behind the door.” In addition, many respondents requested CLEs regarding: (i) understanding how compensation works in law firms; (ii) understanding your rights to equal pay, maternity leave, or disability; and (iii) gender bias, hidden bias, and implicit bias education. Finally, respondents would encourage more pressure from FAWL and The Florida Bar on recognizing the need for a balance of one’s professional life and one’s personal life.
Women lawyers and the legal community do not need a generic solution, but rather a genuine commitment to eliminating structural and embedded biases, while also promoting a change in expectation of professionalism and the value of relationships. The continued use of adverse stereotypes, demeaning and harassing treatment, and the lingering skepticism of the female lawyer’s competence only serve to reinforce the existing gender bias. Moreover, the continued dismissive attitude towards work and family conflicts is symptomatic of systemic gender bias within the legal profession. Perhaps, as one respondent indicated, women lawyers need to “move on” and start rethinking the traditional boundaries and expectations of the legal profession.
Article written by Mariane L. Dorris for the Florida Association for Women Lawyers.