Women have come a long way in the profession of law. For example, four women have been appointed to the Supreme Court to date, and makers are even trying to convince Lego to create figurines representing these women to encourage young girls to think about legal professions. With this in mind, antiquated views of women’s role in law firms seem not only uneducated but also comical. Consider this memo from a 1956 law firm on interviewing new lawyers. It starts off very bluntly, stating that “the firm desires to be candid about its preference for male applicants”, and the memo only gets worse from there. According to the instructions for hiring new lawyers, the firm does “not rate a girl applicant on equal terms with the men applicants” and if a male candidate’s and a female candidate’s resumes appear identical, “the man is given preference, barring some personality defect, on the grounds that being a man, he has probably had extra-curricular experience in the business world.” Even the word choice in the memo is significant: while female candidates are referred to as “girls”, implying they are juvenile, male candidates are referred to as “men”. The memo ends with the writer expressing the opinion that the firm will “not suffer” from preferring male candidates and therefore will continue doing so.
While the memo and the ideas it contains are old-fashioned and outdated, sexism still exists within the legal profession. For example, BMC Group, which provides “legal, financial and corporate information management solutions”, released an advertisement last December featuring a woman in a revealing outfit meant to resemble a business suit. After some viewers express negative opinions of the ad, BMC Group, rather than changing their advertising approach, hosted a party at the American Bankruptcy Institute’s southwest conference featuring the “BMC Group Bikini Girls”. Understandably, some women at the conference were reported to be “appalled” at the idea. Expressing one’s distaste with sexism with law can have negative consequences, though. Charlotte Proudman, a human rights lawyer, received a message from Brown Rudnick partner Alexander Carter-Silk via LinkedIn expressing several compliments concerning her picture on the site. Proudman proceeded to call out Carter-Silk’s publicly for sending her what she interpreted as a sexist message, explaining that women should be regarded for attributes other than just their appearance. Since the incident, Proudman has publicly stated that she misinterpreted Carter-Silk’s message and has apologized to him. The damage has been done, though; many have told Proudman that this incident has essentially ruined her career. The incident shows what the repercussions of calling out sexism within law can be for women, and perhaps explains why some simply choose to ignore it.
So how can law firms go about trying to support gender equality? The Women in the Workplace 2015 report, published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, offers several suggestions. Firms should begin by tracking metrics for both men and women within the firm such as promotion and salary amounts, how high-profile assignments are distributed, and how long members of different gender and minority groups stay with the firm. This allows each individual firm to assess and diagnose their unique problems. Additionally, firms should make it very clear that gender diversity is important by setting clear goals and creating training to reduce gender bias. Finally, firms should strive to level the playing field for men and women by dividing important assignments equally and encouraging networking and support programs for women.
Though true gender equality may still be a long way off—more than 100 years, according to the creators of the Women in the Workplace 2015 report—hopefully the legal profession can start making better strides towards reducing sexism.