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Balancing the Scales: A Look at Gender Discrimination in the Legal Field

When you watch Sharon Rowen’s documentary, Balancing the Scales about discrimination against women in the legal profession, you’ll probably laugh out loud at some point. By interviewing legal professionals ranging from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, Roe v Wade attorney Margie Pitts Hames, female equity partners as well as young associates and law students, Rowen shows the multi-faceted and multi-generational nature of discrimination in the legal profession; effectively pointing out where we have been, where we are, and just how far we need to go. 

Rowen created this documentary out of a desire to help spark a national conversation about the state of women in law and leadership roles.  Back in 1994, when Rowen began the project, she says, “I had seen a number of changes from when I started practicing law in 1979 and in 1994 I really believed, along with everyone else around me, that change was going to keep happening, and then it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen that way, into the leadership ranks.”  The project evolved into less of an oral history of how things were for women pioneers in law, but more of an examination of cultural stereotypes of women and leaders-- and history’s habit of not always moving forward in an easy to follow, linear progression. 

Women Pioneers and “Outsize Personalities”

The stories told in Balancing the Scales are impressive, funny, and show these women handling difficult situations with grace and a sense of humor. Whether it is Gloria Allred marching into the steam room singing “Is this all there is?” to Ruth Bader Ginsburg slyly sharing that she hasn’t made dinner for her family since 1980; the women who challenged barriers and brought many of them down did so with a wink and a smile, in spite of the unfairness and frustration they endured.  Rowen says, “When you’re talking about women who broke down those barriers, they really had to have ‘outsize personalities’ because if they didn’t, and if they didn’t have a sense of humor, they would not have made it.” 

Discrimination Today and the Leaky Pipeline

Despite early advances there is still a shortage of women in leadership positions at law firms, in corporations and in the political realm, and the forces of discrimination have shifted to become more coded, more difficult to detect.  Rowen discusses the “leaky pipeline” and the stages where women are likely to walk away from careers in these areas, but overall, Rowen is optimistic about the chances for long term change.  She points out: “Our society is not going back to women staying at home. Economically it’s not feasible, forget about all the political arguments, we need women in the workforce to maintain family standards of living.  There is no way we are going back as a whole to being a one-earner family.  Things will continue to improve, but will it improve in 5 years because we have a national conversation and we all realize it’s ridiculous, or is it going to take 40 years for society to catch up?”

There are forces at work, bringing this conversation to the forefront.  Not to bring up a tired trope, but women are beginning to reject the idea that they can “have it all” with the brutal reality  of the limited hours in the day quickly curbing superwoman notions.  Additionally, Rowen points out that millennials are not willing to put up with what previous generations accepted.  Balancing the Scales tells stories of women going into labor on Friday and going back to work on Monday and “at screenings, when the younger generation sees these anecdotes, you can see them shake their heads and say ‘no, no, no, that will not be me.’”  Rowen predicts that unfriendly family leave policies will exacerbate the leaky pipeline--for both men and women.  She says, “Millennials will not put up with what other generations have done--it will be a talent drain out the revolving door because neither men nor women will put up with these unrealistic expectations.”  With a talent drain, it might set the stage to discuss gender discrimination, women and leadership--much like the gay marriage conversation that took place years ago, where over a very short time, society realized that our stereotypes did not fit us anymore and public opinion changed fast. 

A National Conversation

Rowen says, “For whatever reason, gender issues have not become a national conversation in the right way where people just wake up and realize--the idea that women don't have what it takes to be leaders in our society is really like a cultural appendix, the feelings are still there, but there is no reason for them.  That national conversation needs to happen, it needs to be brought to the attention of the public in the right way so we can all realize that these old attitudes are ridiculous!”

But just what are these attitudes that are holding us back?  According to Rowen, the bias against women in leadership roles comes from conflicting unconscious expectations of “femininity” and “leadership.”  Rowen says: “In our collective societal mind, we have this idea of women as meek, mild and not aggressive, and that’s what we think a woman should look, sound and feel like.  And then, we have this other thing out here, that in order to be a leader in a firm, in a corporation, in politics, in this society our cultural idea of a political leader  is . . . forward and aggressive . . . white hair, very tall, athletic-build guy.   Dissonance between culturally, what we think of as a woman, and culturally, what we think of as a leader, and that’s the concept we need to change in our society.”  Of course, these are all biases that people rationally reject, but they exist beneath the surface and are powerful.   In order to conquer unconscious bias one must first acknowledge that it exists, and it can be very hard for many attorneys to understand their unconscious biases.

So the work becomes redefining the leader stereotype.  There is a lot of research out there that indicates that women lead in a different way and do things in a different way, and Rowen says, “if women are allowed to bring their perspectives, their authentic selves to a leadership role, they can lead.  The challenge is our cultural idea of what a leader should look and act like.”  Rationally, data and research exists pointing to embracing diverse leadership has a positive impact on profitability, but that has not trickled down into our unconscious selves yet.  Rowen says, “Diversity is not a priority yet, but it needs to be.  Until we can get today’s leaders in firms, corporations and government and in their own mind equate diversity with profitability, then it will happen from the top down and it will happen faster.”  Ironically, it is going to take true leadership to make this shift.  Rowen says, “Many CEOs have not seen that diversity equals profitability on their bottom line yet.  Being a leader means seeing those issues in advance, otherwise you are going to end up on the wrong side of profitability, and the wrong side of history.” 

Learn more about Balancing the Scales here.

Balancing the Scales will be screened at the National Association of Women Lawyers 13th General Counsel Institute, being held November 9 -10 in New York, NY, registration is open to corporate counsel of public, private, large and small companies, non-profits, government, and educational institutions.

Balancing the Scales - Official Trailer from Balancing the Scales on Vimeo.

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About this Author

Eilene Spear legal news editor and writer at the National Law Review
Operations Project Manager & Lead Writer

Eilene Spear is the Operations and Projects Manager for the National Law Review.  She edits and formats author profiles, legal news content and legal event listings from prominent law firms who publish on the NLR website.

As Lead Writer, Eilene writes extensively on a variety of legal topics; including legal marketing topics, interviews with top legal marketing professionals and the newest trends in legal marketing.  Additionally, Eilene writes on issues affecting the legal industry, such as women attorneys and the challenges they face, along...

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