For a long time, I didn’t think sexism existed anymore. I attended an all-women’s college. I worked at a feminist organization after undergrad. In these places, I didn’t see any sexism in my day to day life. So I assumed sexist behavior was akin to a woolly mammoth — extinct.
Law school and my entry into the legal profession, however, have pulled the blinders off. I wanted to write this piece because I continue to witness (and hear about friends witnessing) sexism in the legal profession. It’s not extinct, and I think we should talk about it. A few examples:
• At a recent event, I heard an established member of the bar refer to female attorneys as “lawyerettes.”
• A deponent called me by my first name and opposing counsel as “Mr. So and So” through an entire recent deposition.
• I’ve overheard a law clerk ask a female federal judge if she was another judge’s secretary.
• A friend of mine showed up to take a deposition, only to have opposing counsel pretend (having met her several times before) that she must be the court reporter.
• Attorney friends continue to report that they are asked to get coffee at meetings instead of their male counterparts.
These examples are not earth-shattering, and I usually just roll my eyes when this kind of stuff happens. It isn’t illegal harassment (which, of course, we know also occurs). It’s just annoying. I put this stuff in the same category as the subtler forms of sexism that hum in the background sometimes; the kind that assumes the male baseline is the right baseline. I know a woman attorney who was told to get a vocal coach because her female voice didn’t exude enough authority. I have heard about women attorneys being told to cut their hair, change their clothes, or even lose weight — suggestions that I have a hunch even the most slovenly dressed male attorneys are not hearing.
Should I just roll my eyes for most of this stuff and be done? Perhaps. After all, this is not the stuff of “Mad Men.” The world has improved and most people aren’t facing overt discrimination on a daily basis. But I don’t think we have made enough progress, because external evidence confirms a problem exists. Despite having graduated from law school in equal numbers for years, women are behind in every corner of our profession. As reported by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, February 2013:
• In private practice, women make up 19.9 percent of partners, and only 15 percent of equity partners, yet they represent 45 percent of associates.
• Women make up 21.6 percent of Fortune 500 general counsel, and an even smaller amount (15.6 percent) of Fortune 501-1000 general counsel.
• At the median, women equity partners in the 200 largest firms earn 89 percent of their male peers.
• Women lawyers’ weekly salary totals 86.6 percent of their male peers.
• Women occupy only 27.1 percent of federal and state judgeships.
• Women represent only 20.6 percent of law school deans.
How has this all affected me? Despite the statistics and witnessing the occasional instance of sexism, I want to be clear: I feel supported and encouraged by my colleagues and trusted by my clients. I do not feel that I am underpaid or undervalued or that my gender is holding me back in any way.
So why write about a problem that I don’t think is affecting me? Two reasons.
First, I am ashamed to say that I let the “lawyerette” comment go by without saying anything. And, I didn’t tell the deponent to call me Ms. Dunlop. In the moment, I don’t usually feel like creating a scene (and sometimes, it might be a better strategy to have the deponent underestimate me or assume familiarity). I find myself falling back on advice that I recall Miss Manners offering — in response to an off-color comment, she recommends a “wry smile” or a “hollow laugh.”
But in our profession, we have duties and obligations to people other than ourselves — I think I owe a duty to the bar to speak up, and I am committed to doing so the next time one of these situations arises. And truth be told, I even have a duty to police myself. I too am guilty of occasionally gossiping about my opponent’s suit instead of her oral argument.
Second, the statistics worry me. Women are not reaching the top of our profession in the same numbers as men. It is, of course, too simplistic to imagine that overt sexism is the only thing skewing the numbers. Women may choose to opt out or pursue different opportunities. And studies continue to cite varying reasons for women’s failure to reach the top in big numbers: lack of mentorship, opportunities, etc. That said, I do think that the eye-rolling stuff is a reason among many for the discrepancies. It’s one more hurdle that makes it more difficult for women to keep going in a career that demands so much of everyone.
Sexism makes our profession a less hospitable place for women and a more comfortable place for men. In a job that requires us to work a lot of hours, that’s a lot of time to ask women to be uncomfortable. I want to do something to change this if I can.
So I promise to raise my voice the next time a comment gives me the uh-oh feeling. Perhaps if I do, perhaps if we all do, my daughter has a better chance of living in a world where she can always believe that sexism is extinct.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, sister publication to The Daily Record.