The evolution of women in the law: addressing latent sexism

At a recent professional event, a colleague and friend for many years commented on how astonishing it was that, after expressing my fear of going out on my own practice nearly three decades ago, I did it and I had actually been successful.   And he was surprised by this? I am fairly certain my old friend believed he was paying me a compliment and that he had no idea that his intended praise was actually laced with a patronizing and thinly veiled latent sexism. From my perspective, the fear and uncertainty I felt those many years ago when I went out on my own was perfectly normal and healthy. I attribute my long and distinguished career with wonderful clients I have been privileged to represent, with fine jurists before whom I have been privileged to practice, with many talented colleagues who have helped me along the way – and with my own skills that I worked very hard to hone for the benefit of my clients.

Do men attribute their professional success to these factors and in that order?

In my experience, women lawyers tend to second-guess their skills and their judgment. Perhaps this is part of what makes women lawyers very good at collaboration, because they seem to be more willing to gather input and information from others in their decision-making process. These are generalizations, of course, and whatever it takes to arrive at good judgment is to be encouraged. Professional judgment is one of the most important attributes of a lawyer. But the tendency to second-guess can be interpreted – ever so subtly – as a professional weakness and this, in turn, may propel the cycle of latent sexism that continues to exist in our legal system.

Many aspects of private practice have changed in the last three decades for women as overt sexism seems to have died out. But there is room for continued improvement that will require greater exploration and understanding of underlying latent sexism. The treatment of women as objects, the focus on how they appear and what they wear, the discrepancy in treatment in courtrooms based on gender, the requirement for women to work harder and do their jobs better in order to advance themselves – these and many other forms of latent sexism continue to exist. I suspect that many men (and even some women) have forward-looking attitudes toward women in the law and would be shocked to understand that their behavior is mildly patronizing or worse. But no sexism is truly benign, and the best of intentions do not replace appropriate behavior.