Female attorneys in Florida report widespread gender bias

By Ruth de Jauregui | May 3, 2016

TALLAHASSEE – A study sent to female members of the Florida Bar's Young Lawyer Division (YLD) revealed a significant number of women had experienced gender bias.

The 2015 YLD Survey on Women in the Legal Profession, sent out to a random sample of the 3,000 female members, revealed that 43 percent of the respondents had experienced gender bias. More than 400 young female lawyers responded to the survey.

The survey responses indicated that female lawyers still face a significant level of gender bias in the profession, including harassment from the opposing lawyers, their own employers and the court. The lawyers reported incidents ranging from being mistaken for court reporters, to dismissive terms such as "little lady," to sexual harassment by senior partners.

Pay was also an issue, with 21 percent of the lawyers stating that they believed male counterparts were receiving higher pay. Lack of recognition of work-life balance was noted by 37 percent of the responders.

The survey's 90 pages of responses included specific examples of bias, such as a female lawyer not being allowed to attend hearings on her own cases, while male associates with less experience were sent to trial. The lawyers also cited assumptions that female attorneys would eventually marry and thus did not need to worry about making money or advancement in the firm. Questions regarding child care arrangements and the ability to work late were also shared in the lawyers' candid responses.

"The survey started the conversation statewide and it's inspiring programs and initiatives to address the issues," YLD Co-Chair of the Commission on Women Valerie Barton Barnhart told the Florida Record.

In response to the survey's findings, the Florida Bar is offering continuing legal education (CLE) courses to address gender bias and discrimination, including a free online course CARE to Improve the Conversation. The course is based on Florida Bar President Ramón A. Abadin's presentation to voluntary bar associations and Florida Association for Women Lawyers chapters. It incorporates and highlights the survey findings.

In addition, Florida Bar Director of Public Information & Bar Services Francine Andía Walker told the Florida Record, "The YLD set up a series of free webinars and they have a CLE planned for the Bar’s annual convention."

The programs scheduled in April by the YLD through its Women in Law initiative, included a written interview series "Balancing in Heels: Self, Family and the Practice of Law," and four free webinars. These were open to all lawyers.

"Diversity training is primarily done by the local bar associations. The Florida Bar offers grants to them to cover the costs," Walker said regarding the Florida Bar's efforts to increase diversity awareness and inclusion.

While the findings of the survey were "frustrating to read," Barnhart said, they "kicked off a huge conversation." She continued, "Change starts at the top."

Female attorneys now hold 46 percent of the leadership positions of the top 50 colleges and universities law reviews and the American Bar Association may soon be led by women. With enrollment at law schools split nearly evenly between men and women, the legal profession is facing a challenging time of change and progress.

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