Workplace Harassment: Women Discriminated Against in the Legal Profession

1253 words | 5 page(s)


A commercial reality is that virtually all professions reflect, and may rely upon, social ideologies in place. This is true even as ideas have changed regarding gender roles in workforces, and women occupy jobs which would have been completely denied them only decades ago. The advances made by feminism, in fact, reinforce how powerfully traditional norms still dictate female opportunity, and this is seen in all legal professions. Women in law today enjoy unprecedented access to employment, but even this is restricted by how women are looked down upon in courtrooms and offices, and does not meaningfully alter the ideological insistence as the male as the superior legal professional. In the following, the facts of this situation are examined and it is then evident that women in legal workforces, if having made advances, are still subject to the sexist discrimination within the society as a whole, and women faces barriers in working as a lawyer men do not.

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To understand how and why women remain largely discriminated against in legal professions, it is necessary to first recognize the inescapable fact of gender bias as ingrained in the society. Feminism since the 1070s has certainly created change, but the greater reality is that the U.S. has always been, and remains, a Western patriarchy based on the assumption that males are more capable than women, more valuable in most workforces, and consequently entitled to hold all positions demanding intelligence and strength of character. The quality of this norm is not the primary point; what matters more is that it shapes how the nation functions, and typically translates to the general demeaning of women as acceptable. Highlighting this is the current MeToo movement. Not surprisingly, social and political resistance to the Trump administration generated this activism, which exists nationally as an attempt to end the sexual harassment and violence against women ongoing for decades (Ortiz, Lourgos). Equally importantly, the opposition to sexual harassment exists within the larger framework of the ideologically-based denigration of women in general, which must impact on all professions.

Even before turning specifically to the law, there is strong evidence of how social norms affect employment, and both deny women access to opportunity and subject them to discriminatory or abusive treatment in the workforce. When the female gender is widely perceived as inferior, it must happen that women become stereotyped in multiple forms and varying degrees, and this impacts on job placement. Stereotyping others, for example, affects the ways in which people remember information (Levinson, Young 6); this being the case, the capable woman seeking a position in a law firm may easily be recalled by the interviewers as inadequate, and because the stereotyped impression is allowed to dominate the reality. Then, stereotyping exists within a range of behaviors and perceptions combining to lessen female opportunity in the law, and beginning in the educational stages.

At Harvard Law School, for example, 53% of the female student body believe that faculty is biased against women. In other law school surveys, over 40% of women report that the professors use or tolerate offensive humor (Kay, Gorman 300). Essentially, the woman as confronting significant bias in entering the legal profession is virtually inevitable in a society in which sexist discrimination is maintained even in the law schools.

The effects of this discrimination are evident in every aspect of the legal profession. As noted, more women hold high-ranking positions in firms than in the late 20th century, but this progress is illusory in itself. The proportions have become more level, but women consistently work in lower numbers, and from entry-level positions to the senior. More women intern at law firms than do male law graduates, just as men more occupy higher-paying attorney positions. The same disparity exists in courtroom jobs, although women near male numbers in clerical jobs requiring less education. Even when women occupy prestigious positions, moreover, gender norms have their impact. For example, men are consistently more likely to practice corporate law and criminal law, while women more practice domestic relations law (Kay, Gorman 303). Data as to how these women are treated within the firms is minimal, but the relevant point here relates to women in law as directed to working with cases reflective of associations of women with domesticity. Once again, cultural beliefs in what is appropriate for females to engage in take literal form in the legal profession.

The latest findings of the American Bar Association affirm this consistent disparity between men and women in the law. Twice as many men serve as law school deans than do women, and female attorney salaries are consistently less than what males earn by approximately 25% (ABA). Then, and not unexpectedly, that women have lessened opportunity in the highest levels of the law is documented fact. Women hold one-third of U.S. state final appellate jurisdiction courts judgeships, just as men outnumber women in all state court judge seats (ABA). In gaining judgeships, it is true, women have made remarkable advances in the last few decades, and appointments of female judges on all levels increase at a higher rate than do appointments for minority males (Hurwitz, Lanier 344). The reality remains however, that the advances gain in import only by virtue of the far greater denials of opportunity in the past.

Beyond actual job statistics, evidence strongly supports that women in law are frequently demeaned and looked down upon in the professional environments, just as they respond in ways accommodating the discrimination. It is found, for example, that female lawyers are often reluctant to refer to their children at work, because this enhances ideas of the woman as passive and nurturing, which defies the qualities prized in law (Levinson, Young 12). Then, research reveals a range of behaviors typically facing women in law which, if not overtly illegal, debase them. In office or courtroom, the female confronts: remarks about her dress or appearance that diminish her stature, and which men do not hear; expressions by judges and fellow lawyers of affirming traditional beliefs regarding the “nature” of women; usage of terms like “honey” and “baby”; and repeated interruptions while speaking (Kay, Gorman 306). In a very real sense, in fact, the law exists as a microcosm of a society which, if influenced by feminism and less sexist than in the past, still maintains a fundamental belief in the woman as less valuable than the man.

The isolate the law as the only profession discriminating against women is, of course, irrational. In a patriarchal society, it must happen that women face career barriers men do not in any workforce, and because sexism is deeply ingrained in the fabric of any patriarchy. It might be believed that the legal profession, so reflective of principle and learning, would be less in accord with sexist practices. Unfortunately, the power of gender bias transcends such considerations and, as has been seen, women in the law are subjected to harassment and denial of opportunity from law school education to the highest ranks of judgeships. Women have made significant progress in overcoming gender discrimination, but the greater reality is that the society’s insistence on male superiority remains a defining quality of the law as career. Ultimately, it seems clear that women in legal workforces, despite having made advances, are still subject to the sexist bias and ideologies within the society as a whole, and inequality of opportunity marks the primary difference between the woman and the man in legal careers.

  • American Bar Association (ABA). A Current Glance at Women in the Law, January, 2017.
    2018, Web. 11 Aug. 2018.
  • Kay, Fiona, and Elizabeth Gorman. “Women in the legal profession.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 4 (2008): 299-332.
  • Hurwitz, Mark S., and Drew Noble Lanier. “Explaining judicial diversity: The differential ability
    of women and minorities to attain seats on state supreme and appellate courts.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 3.4 (2003): 329-352.
  • Levinson, Justin D., and Danielle Young. “Implicit gender bias in the legal profession: An
    empirical study.” Duke J. Gender L. & Pol’y 18 (2010): 1-44.
  • Ortiz, Vicki, and Angie L. Lourgos. “Sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement: Catalyst for change or fleeting moment?” Chicago Tribune, 28 Oct. 2017. Web. 11 Aug. 2018.
    < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-sexual-harassment-tipping-point-20171027-story.html>

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