When asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg answered: “When there are nine. People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that." The statement is a powerful reminder of the historical battles women had to fight to break into the field of law. In 1875, Lavinia Goodell was denied admission to the Wisconsin state bar on the grounds that “nature has tempered woman as little for the juridical conflicts of the court room, as for the physical conflicts of the battlefield.”
Women have made progress. The Wisconsin Supreme Court now has a majority of women. The number of female lawyers has grown significantly and more women are promoted into leadership roles. The commitment to gender equality and diversity is widely discussed. Law firms and Fortune 500 companies have been heavily investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives. The mission of groups like the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Association of Women Lawyers is helping sustain and reshape the role of women in law.
At least anecdotally, there seems to be momentum building to more opportunities for women, but the statistics tell us otherwise. Although women represent approximately half of law students and entry-level associates across the U.S., numbers from the National Association for Law Replacement show that only 18.7% of equity partners in multi-tier law firms were women and only 6.1% were minorities in 2017. Women are also underrepresented in judicial positions. Only 33% of active United States district or trial court judges are women. Only 10% of federal court judges across the country are women of color. The likelihood that women will become equity partners remains largely unchanged over the last ten years, with the data reflecting an increase from 16% in 2007 to only 19% in 2017. The combination of being a lawyer and a woman of color presents particular challenges as law remains the least racially diverse profession in the United States. Women of color in law firms are more likely than any other group to experience exclusion from other employees based on racial and gender stereotyping. The gender wage gap also remains. According to the ABA, a female lawyer earns 89% of the compensation earned by her male counterpart.
As an attorney who is both an immigrant and a woman of color, this issue feels particularly close to home for me. When interviewing for a position at a large law firm, I was told I should probably not work for the firm if I wanted to have a child in the future. In another interview, I was questioned about my ability to write in English “fast enough” even though I am licensed to practice in New York and have been working and living in the United States for almost a decade. My commitment and credentials have been called into question based solely on my gender and immigration status. The numbers say that I am not alone. Progress has been made, but what can be done to close the gap between men and women in the legal profession?
The first, and perhaps most important, step is to acknowledge that there continues to be a significant gender gap in law. We have to have an honest conversation on the issue. Discriminatory practices in the legal profession are often a result of unconscious bias. Employers have to acknowledge that bias negatively affects female lawyers and take concrete steps for organizational and behavioral change. Although change needs to also happen at an individual level, commitment needs to come from both ends: top down and bottom up.
Change means more than just establishing a diversity committee for the monthly newsletter. It means retaining and promoting more women to management positions. It means creating mentorship and sponsorship programs where women in leadership can help less experienced lawyers build their career path. It means systematically collecting qualitative and quantitative data to cast a light on challenges faced by women and implementing programs to address them. It means understanding the unique challenges women of color face in the workplace and providing networks of support and affinity groups where these experiences can be shared.
An all-female Supreme Court might still be a distant reality, but women have undoubtedly achieved significant success in law. Women like Goodell have paved the way for other women to achieve what had previously been unthinkable. There is still a long way to go. As female lawyers, we need to be aware of the many barriers we have faced - and are still facing - to succeed, and continue to fight for a more just, unbiased, and equal profession for ourselves and the generations to come.