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Women in law should not be invisible

Balancing the Scales

In screening “Balancing the Scales,” my film about women lawyers, to firms, corporations, and bar associations across the nation, I have had the unique opportunity to hear from women spanning five generations about how they have dealt with the issue of why women seem to be  “invisible” to leaders of firms, corporations and governments when it comes to  being groomed for or promoted to leadership positions. One bias we as a society have yet to get beyond is the feeling that women do not have the “leadership gene” – that they just don’t have what it takes to inspire and lead. Too often, this causes women to abandon their career.

Now, in 2017, sexual bias is very much alive and well – Harvey Weinstein and many others are finally being held accountable.  Sixty years ago, the term “sexual harassment in the workplace” had not yet been coined. Almost 40 years ago, Anita Hill was verbally lynched  by a congressional committee comprised entirely of men.

Today – a sign of some progress – there is “Me Too.”

And yet, too many potential female leaders are still feeling, and saying, “Maybe not me.”  What has been dubbed “the leaky pipeline” – women leaving the workplace – has  become a flood. Women in law must challenge our cultural values so that women aspiring to leadership are not having to work twice as hard for less prestigious positions and less pay.

After screenings, I always hear the same questions. Leaders say they don’t understand why women are leaving, while in the same room, women are pulling me aside and telling me exactly why.

Young women, who came out of law school believing that “everything is equal,” begin to understand that women are not making career or caregiving choices from a level playing field.  They talk to me about impossible choices: the structural inequalities of childcare in our country and the inability to ask for time off for fear of  appearing uncommitted.  They talk to me about pay disparity, partly attributable to the fact that women often have to step away early in their careers due to caregiving responsibilities. The disparity between comparably situated men and women equity partners in large law firms can be $100,000 per year or more.

Whether it is because “work life balance” is not possible in the legal world, or because the indignity of lower pay added to years of working in an environment toxic to women, has too many women finally saying “It’s not worth the fight,” something is inherently wrong with the business of law.

Bias against women in law, just as in business, entertainment and politics is like a vestigial organ, a cultural appendix. It still exists, but serves no useful function in a society evolving to require women to participate in the workforce. Women are welcomed at lower levels because they get the work done, but the widespread belief that women just don’t have the “leadership gene” still exists everywhere. All we have to do is notice it.

Those who do not heed the trend that our workplaces must be fully inclusive risk being dumped due to public outcry on social media and by voters. Business, entertainment, the tech industry, politics –everyone must notice or end up on the wrong side of history. But in order for our society to do something about it, first young women lawyers and law students must understand that there is a problem that must be brought to the forefront of not only their individual lives, but to society as a whole.

When our national conversation about gender equality reaches a tipping point, the notion that women lack “the leadership gene” will seem quaint.   Naming the problem is the beginning to a solution.  We must propel a national conversation, and hope that the tipping point comes sooner rather than later. Not only because that would be good for women, but because it would be good for us all.

Sharon Rowen Sharon Rowen is a trial lawyer and filmmaker based in Atlanta. Her documentary, "Balancing the Scales," tells the story of women lawyers in America and their struggles across generations. The film has been broadcast nationwide on public television. Sharon screens Balancing the Scales for audiences across the country and has become a recognized speaker and consultant on gender equality. She addresses law firms, corporations, and national associations on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.