Women in Law Face ‘Pervasive Sexism’: Report

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Women attorneys in criminal law continue to face “pervasive sexism,” according to a paper in the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law.

While women have slightly outnumbered men in law school for the past four years, female law graduates make up a much smaller representation of actual attorneys, and an even smaller number of justice leaders, wrote Maryam Ahranjani, Associate Professor and Don L. & Mabel F. Dickason Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Ahranjani’s paper reported in part on the findings of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Women in Criminal Justice Task Force, launched in January 2019.

Even when women rise to some level of power as criminal attorneys, retaining their authority and influence is difficult, wrote Ahranjani, noting that women are 141 percent more likely to leave private practice of criminal law than women in other fields.

This can partially be attributed to treatment by their male colleagues.

“Senior lawyers (usually male) do not refer clients to female lawyers unless the clients need a ‘softer’ approach and “hand- holding,” said the paper.

Two years after the launch of the task force, the paper details findings of an 18-month project of confidential listening sessions―an opportunity aimed to create a safe space for women to share their experiences working in criminal law.

For many women whose voices were shared from the session, the sentiment was the same: Being a female lawyer in criminal law means constantly having others tell you to “toughen up,” wrote Ahranjani.

“In the 1920s, the President of the Women’s Bar Association reportedly told recently admitted women to never let anyone refer to them as a ‘woman lawyer’ because that in and of itself is an obstacle to practice,” she wrote.

The stigma that women “naturally’ unable to perform as well as menhas changed very little since, said Ahranjani, in the paper, entitled “Toughen Up, Buttercup” versus #TimesUp: Initial Findings of the ABA Women in Criminal Justice Task Force.”

In order to be successful, “women criminal lawyers must mimic masculine norms to be successful in the field,” she wrote.

A participant in the listening session reported that “male clients often asked personal and inappropriate questions of their female counsel, or broached subjects they would never discuss with male lawyers.”

While modern law schools are more gender-balanced, the number of actual female lawyers has only increased six percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the task force.

Nevertheless, paper noted, “many studies indicate that the presence and leadership of women in criminal justice reduce[s] corruption.”

“When people feel more comfortable with their attorneys, they are likely to feel more confident in the system and in the rule of law.”

Although there has been some progress of female representation, specifically in law school, a gap remains between white women and Asian, Black and Hispanic women, said the paper.

According to the paper, women who are white or Asian were more likely to end up in “higher paying management, professional” positions, while women who are Black or Hispanic are “much more likely to be among the working poor,” said the paper.

Racial disparities are also evident in working conditions for female lawyers.

“Black caregivers report that, compared to white co-workers, they are more often denied leave, given schedules incompatible with childcare in retaliation for complaining about race discrimination, and disciplined when family responsibilities make them late or require them to miss work,” said the paper.

While the Nursing Mothers Law was created to give women rights they needed while nursing, almost one million women who are Black and one million women who are Hispanic aren’t fully covered by its provisions, said the paper.

“Women of color continue to experience barriers and bias, resulting in isolation within an infrastructure that refuses to acknowledge the influence of stereotyping of women of color, which is then exacerbated by microaggressions.”

According to the paper these microaggressions can include “not being spoken to directly by peers and subordinates and having their ideas ignored during meetings only to see someone else bring up the same ideas and later take credit for them.”

The rights of pregnant or nursing mothers has become even more of an issue for the new generation of women in criminal law who are fighting for their rights while pregnant or nursing to an older generation of women who weren’t allotted the same care.

“Women who succeeded in spite of the many obstacles to their advancement are naturally inclined to tell younger women to tough it out, as they did.

They may even view their success as deriving in part from their ability to overcome those obstacles,” said a participant in a listening session.

“Simply because women have been impeded in their progress for centuries is no reason to perpetuate the practice. Just because a woman learned to ‘deal with’ sexual harassment in the workplace is no reason her daughter should have to do so,” said the same participant.

Pregnancy and nursing was seen as enough of a setback within the criminal law field that women chose to put being an attorney before having children. Below is one comment from the listening session.

With respect to retention and promotion, [the question] is how you make it there and still have a family . . . what’s often overlooked is fertility stuff and IVF and freezing your eggs. I don’t want to have children until I’ve done a homicide,” said a participant from a listening session.

Separately, findings on Latina women in law showed that they were more likely to work in public sector law but are seen as having lesser understanding of the law or prematurely judged on being unable to speak English.

“Not all Latina attorneys are fluent in the Spanish language and any expectation otherwise is driven by an entrenched social structure of racism that operates on a black/white binary, where other groups falling outside of this binary are treated as monolithic,” said the article.

The paper also discussed the role of District Attorneys, whose power as an elected official could greatly benefit from more women who are elected because of their proficiency in law, although according to the paper women can often be deterred from applying due to the treatment they received in their current roles.

“The concern is that implicit bias and overt acts of discrimination and hostility will deter women and women of color from pursuing and remaining in leadership roles, not to mention the role of implicit biases,” said the paper.

Overall, sentiments shared within the confidentiality of the listening sessions reflected that it isn’t uncommon for women to feel that they get unfair treatment from their male coworkers.

“Men try to intimidate you through intimations of incompetence and sometimes blatant overtures of incivility,” said a woman in a listening session.

“There’s a fine line between aggressive and bitch,” said another participant. “I was called a chihuahua by a judge once; management said to ‘let it go,’”

In-person listening sessions ended in March, 2020 due to the pandemic.

While policies haven’t been drafted yet by the task force, recommendations that addressed some concerns by the participants in the listening sessions included:

      •  Advocating for more female mentorship and policies that support women; and
      • Diversity and inclusion training.

The listening sessions comprised lawyers who were women or gender non-conforming from all over the country and of varying racial and ethnic groups. Lawyers participating in the sessions were nominated to participate.

Ahranjani serves as the Reporter for the task force.

The full report: “Toughen Up, Buttercup” versus #TimesUp: Initial Findings of the ABA Women in Criminal Justice Task Force can be read here.

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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