Young Lawyers launches ‘Women in Law’ to combat bias

By Vanessa Van Voorhis | Apr 16, 2016

ORLANDO – A recent survey by the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the Florida Bar Association (FBA) found that young female attorneys are experiencing gender bias, employer insensitivity and even harassment in the workplace.

ORLANDO – A recent survey by the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the Florida Bar Association (FBA) found that young female attorneys are experiencing gender bias, employer insensitivity and even harassment in the workplace.

“The YLD and its Commission on Women wanted to assess the current status of women in the legal profession, identify quality of life issues that impact Florida’s female lawyers, and ascertain their concerns in order to provide relevant and impactful programming,” Valerie Barnhart, a partner at Kelly Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale and co-chair of YLD’s Women’s Committee, told the Florida Record.

What they discovered came as a big surprise to many at the Florida Bar Association. Among the 465 female attorneys under the age of 36, 43 percent of respondents reported experiencing gender bias within the first five years of their legal career.

More than a quarter of respondents said they resigned from a position due to a lack of advancement opportunities, a lack of work-life balance, and employer or supervisor insensitivity. Forty-two percent said balancing work and life responsibilities is a challenge or concern they face as practicing attorneys.

Twenty-one percent said they believe there is pay inequity compared to their male counterparts. And many respondents said they experienced serious issues, including bias and harassment from opposing counsel, the court or their employer.

The bulk of the 96-page survey is testimonials citing examples of such grievances.

One woman recounts: “During internship in law school, I experienced gender bias and harassment when a supervisor inappropriately touched me. I never reported it, and still see this attorney at professional events and engagements.”

Another writes: “The Equal Pay Act is being violated by a lot of law firms, especially the ones who hire staff attorneys to do substantially the same job as associates for two-thirds of the price. Overall, despite the liberal maternity leave policies, female attorneys in Big Law struggle with the traditional law-firm model and old-school mentality.”

“It is our hope that by hanging a lantern on this issue, we can work together to ensure that all members feel respected and that hard work will yield equal opportunity,” FBA President Ramón A. Abadin said in a statement. “Every attorney should know, regardless of gender, that there is room at the top for them.”

Toward this effort, the YLB is spearheading the “Women in Law” initiative to engage dialogue on the issue and encourage FBA members to work together toward a solution. This month, the YLB is hosting webinars and planning a symposium in June at FBA’s annual convention called “Engage: Advancing Women Is a Cause for All Lawyers.” Topics will address bias, sponsorship and leadership.

“The Young Lawyers Division has also created a new award this year to recognize and celebrate the achievements of a woman lawyer or judge who excels in her field, possesses an excellent reputation for integrity, exhibits dedication to her community and her profession through bar-related or similar activities, and who demonstrates a commitment to the success and advancement of young women lawyers,” Abadin told the Florida Record.

Among FBA’s own membership, 15 percent held the position of association of president during the last 20 years. Its board of governors is comprised of 21 percent women. The current ratio of FBA membership is 63 percent male and 37 percent female.

“The number of female attorneys that serve on the board of governors continues to increase,” Abadin said. “In fact, this year more women have run for election than in prior years.”

Law, once a profession dominated by men, is experiencing a cultural shift as law schools graduate men and women at an equal rate, reports indicate. Female attorneys hold 46 percent of the leadership positions at the law reviews of the top 50 colleges and universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

“The profession is experiencing an exciting time of change and progress,” Abadin said. “While generational changes are taking place, it is still critical we as a profession have a conversation to address these issues head on.”

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