Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sexism in our lives

Today is Blog Against Sexism Day! And that makes this a perfect moment to talk about my law school.

As vegankid noted in her list of ways in which we have *not* achieved equality, in the link above, women remain underrepresented in the law. She wrote:

Women have been 40% of all law school students since 1995, and over half since 2001, but are only 15% of partners in law firms nationwide. Many female lawyers attest to double standards and discrimination.

One clear reason that women don't make partner at law firms is that the law firm partnership schedule is just a good schedule for anyone, male or female, who wants to have a family. Or, at least, who wants to have a family that they spend time with, ever. Another contributing factor, though hardly the main reason, is that women (including myself) are more likely to opt out of working at big firms--in part because it's so well known that they are not supportive of family life (or any life that doesn't include billing your hours) and in part because we are more likely to go into public interest work.

Those reasons have a lot to do with sexism, of course. Companies' or firms' familiy policies have a lot to do with whether they can be considered woman-friendly. And men, in my experience in law school, are substantially more likely to feel pressure from families to make enough money to support a wife and kids on their salaries rather than assuming that they will be partnered with someone who also has a job--factors that tend to lead toward firms and away from the uncertainties and low salaries of the public interest world. Of course, the assumption that women will partner with someone who also earns a salary, while in some cases freeing since we don't as often solely financially responsible for the whole family, means that women's work can be treated as a cute hobby if it isn't strictly necessary for the family's survival. A surprising number of people assume that my work must mean less and be less important to me because it is less well paid than my SO's is. This is not the case, though certainly the salary is one indication that society values my work less.

So those are some reasons. And then there are some other reasons that the legal world is not friendly to women, some of which I can speak to first-hand.

My law school keeps a steady rate of 45% women. I don't believe that this is because 45% of their applicants are women.

In a study completed in 2004, it was revealed that women talk far less in class than men do. 10% of the students do 40% of the talking; by far the majority of that 10% is male.

Women's grades aren't as high.

Many people respond to these numbers by reproaching female law students with their lack of confidence, their lack of drive, their timidity and fragility. This is especially true of women who attended law school 20 or more years ago; I hear from them often, if not in so many words, that we really just need to toughen up. I don't think the problem is just that we're not tough, because we are. The problem is that we are made to feel less welcome and less valid in our profession, day after day.

I could list all of the things that people have said to me in law school that I found to be sexist and exclusionary, but that would take a long time and become both nitpicky and annoying. Instead, here are some brief anecdotes from one particularly exemplary trial advocacy class.

The class was aimed to build advocacy skills. Every day, each of us would prepare a presentation (an opening statement, a closing statement, a cross or direct examination). We would then perform it, and our performance would be critiqued by a panel of practicing trial lawyers. One professor frequently commented to men whose performances were especially strong, "You have great natural talents for the courtroom." When specified, such "great talents" often included a deep voice, an energetic appearance, tall height and imposing presence. Which, I'll grant, may be assets in a courtroom--but talents? This comment was never made to a woman, despite the presence in our class of many extremely talented women.

Comments made to women included:

(praising) "You weren't shrill at all!"
(following criticism regarding presence) "Don't worry, you're not too small to be a trial lawyer." (As the student to whom this particular gem was addressed, I immediately began to fear that I was, indeed, too small to be a lawyer, any kind of lawyer. The fear lasted until class ended and all of the other women in the class began to make fun of the professor).
(neutrally commenting) "E. is very...brassy." (What happened to the "great natural talent" inherent in energy and loud voices?)
(frequently repeated) "As a woman, you want to make sure that you don't come off as too (insert slightly pejorative term frequently used to describe women here)."

I learned a lot about trial advocacy. But I also learned a lot about sexism in the law. This was a setting in which professors and practitioners talked openly about their impressions of us all--they had to, because the point of the criticism was to let us know how we would come off to a jury. And the double standard--in which men have great natural talents for the law and we're always a little, somehow--was right there to see.


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