It's Your Problem, Too: Gender Bias and the Legal Profession, 0420 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 4 Pg. 4

Position:Vol. 49, 4 [Page 4]

49 Colo.Law. 4

It's Your Problem, Too: Gender Bias and the Legal Profession

No. Vol. 49, No. 4 [Page 4]

Colorado Lawyer

April, 2020



Maya's Story: "After earning a graduate degree and working as a scientist, I switched careers to law. I felt fortunate to find a position working for a small firm in Southwest Colorado on federal voting rights litigation on behalf of underrepresented communities.

When I started, my son was 10 months old. At the time, I was the only female attorney at the firm with an infant, balancing work with caretaking responsibilities. During my six years at that firm I was routinely the target of comments from the senior partner who served as my direct supervisor. For example, when I worked up the courage to tell him I was pregnant with my second child, he responded, "Not again!" When I advocated for careful scrutiny of a contract involving child vaccinations, he dismissed my concerns saying, "Don't let your maternal instincts get in the way of your legal judgment." Almost weekly, the partner asked me if I had "put my kids on eBay yet?" While the comments were flippant, the implication was clear: my identity as a woman and a mother was viewed as deleterious to my practice.

When I expressed my concerns to other partners in the firm, they were dismissive, even mocking. Ultimately, I resigned and started my own practice, which has been rewarding, but my decision to leave came at a high cost. In addition to significant financial consequences, I left behind work that I loved and relationships with clients that had taken years to build. But I had arrived at a moment where remaining was untenable. While I knew that the firm's culture was deeply flawed, I did not have the experience, confidence, and seniority to change it."

Unfortunately, Maya's account is not unique. Gender bias and discrimination pervades the legal profession. Despite many advances, substantial gender disparities persist. Women lag far behind men in compensation and other critical metrics of success, including positions of leadership and power in law firms. Women disproportionately face bullying, tokenism, and subconscious bias, especially around motherhood and caretaking.

We face a demographic crisis in the legal profession: women are leaving the practice of law in droves. As women are sidelined, we lose the talent and skills of excellent attorneys, often fully trained and experienced. Equally important, when women leave we lose their voices and the opportunity to meaningfully change our professional culture because the absence of women "at the table" reinforces existing cultural norms. Below, we explore these issues in greater depth and offer recommendations for the legal community, including law firms, to foster institutional and cultural change.

Pay and Power Disparities

It is incontrovertible that women have a desire to practice law. The percentage of women attending law school began a marked increase in the 1970s, approaching 50% in the early 2000s.1 After some fluctuation, the last five years have seen women outnumber men in law school, and the gap is widening.2 In 2018, the percentage of women law students was 52.4%.3 Upon graduating, women enter the legal profession in roughly equal proportion to men, comprising between 45% and 50% of all first-year associates.4

But this is where parity ends. Women begin leaving the profession in their thirties, and the attrition steadily continues through retirement age.5 By contrast, male attorneys reach peak demographic representation in the profession in their thirties and maintain consistent numbers until retirement. (See Figure 1.) Given these dynamics, it's not surprising that men outnumber women nearly 2 to 1 in the legal profession.6

Gender disparities extend far beyond demographic representation. Nationally, women lag behind men in critical metrics of professional success. Women are underrepresented in positions of power in law firms, where they comprise just 22.7% of partnerships and 19% of equity partnerships.[7] Likewise, fewer women are promoted: 141 men are promoted to partner for every 100 women who are promoted.8 Women are similarly underrepresented in positions of leadership, where they make up just 25% of management committees and practice leadership.9 Women are underrepresented in non-firm leadership too, including positions of general counsel (30%), general counsel for fortune 501-1,000 (23.8%), law school deans (35%), and the judiciary, where in 2019 only 27% of all federal judges were women.10

Gender disparities are magnified in compensation, especially in private practice. Women earn less than men at all levels, beginning as early as law school graduation and increasing over time.11 Female lawyers earn on average 20% less than male lawyers, a wage gap that has remained relatively consistent since at least 2002.[12] A 2017 survey reported that male partners annually earned $959,000 on average compared to $627,000 for female partners, a 53% difference.13 The partner wage gap has increased in the...

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