Work + Growth

Gender Bias in the Law: How Equality Can Be Achieved


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  • The legal industry, just as the rest of the professional world, struggles with gender bias
  • Women lawyers are paid less for the same work, given less access to plum assignments, and are less likely to make partner—regardless of experience and effort
  • Solutions include identifying and tracking bias, eliminating all-male compensation committees, and eliminating the office housework problem by rotating assignments

As the legal industry is reflective of the broader society, gender inequality is an issue just as it is in other industries.

It can be especially thorny in a profession notorious for clinging to tradition and being generally change averse. This lack of equality is expressed at every level of a woman’s law career, and manifests as fewer opportunities, fewer promotions, lower base pay, relegation to lower level work upon becoming a parent (the “mommy track”), and smaller bonuses, all while women often shoulder higher expectations and harsher critiques.

Women’s Stories

A 2018 study conducted by the Center for WorkLifeLaw at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and released by the American Bar Association detailed the obstacles women lawyers continue to face. Talking about gender bias and its effects can be uncomfortable, and without specific examples, somewhat abstract. Nothing can be improved without plainly naming and discussing the problem, so let’s examine how inequality at work affects real-life women in concrete ways.

One often-overlooked burden that most of the women in the study mentioned was being expected, asked, or even assigned “office housework” tasks—such as ordering lunch, cleaning, or taking notes. Women lawyers also report being expected to perform emotional labor, such as comforting a coworker, and administrative tasks such as scheduling meetings and birthday parties. These extra tasks take time out of a lawyer’s day but don’t compute to billable hours or career advancement. This treatment is in addition to not being given proper credit for business they bring in and tasks they complete.

Women lawyers are often penalized for behavior that is tolerated or encouraged in men. Can you think of ways this might play out?

One study participant was told she was “overconfident” and “not deferential enough,” while another’s performance reviews always include admonishments to be “softer” and more ladylike. Women report being regularly cut off while speaking in meetings, and their attempts at speaking seen as interruptions while their male counterparts speak freely.

Certain issues hit women of color particularly hard: Female lawyers of color are even more likely than white women to be mistaken for administrative, court, or even custodial staff. One female partner says that she is still frequently mistaken for a legal assistant at her own firm.

Giving birth frequently results in less favorable treatment—being taken less seriously and given less access to the most valuable cases. Studies show that having children does not negatively affect male lawyers, and they are often given a pay increase once they become fathers. And firms aren’t even hiding this disparate treatment: When one woman asked why men with comparable experience who began working with the firm at the same time she did had been made partner while she had not, she was blatantly told that it was because she had given birth.

The Money

Of course, this bias extends to and is most easily demonstrated by the pay gap that persists between male and female lawyers. Studies confirm not only that women are being paid less than men, but the disparity exists regardless of experience level or hours worked. In fact, a report by a legal invoicing company revealed that women lawyers tend to bill more than men—by an average of 24 minutes more each day, while still being paid less. When lawyers reach the partner level, the wage gap is even more pronounced.

Being paid less based on gender is particularly hard to escape when the salary at your next job is based on the salary you were paid in your last position. In addition, not being a part of the boys’ club means having less access to networking opportunities and prime assignments, further hindering a woman’s ability to achieve equitable pay status with her male counterparts. And on top of that, further studies show that for all the encouragement women receive to negotiate pay, interviewers often perceive women who do so as “pushy” or view their assertiveness as a negative quality, which is not the perception for men who negotiate. It’s quite the vicious circle.

The Solutions

If it sounds like there’s a lot of work to do to promote equality in the legal field, that’s because there absolutely is. But since when have lawyers been afraid of a little hard work? If firms and individuals are willing and dedicated to eradicating bias, great strides can be made. One important step that law firms need to take is to commit to transparency in hiring, compensation, and how projects are assigned.

The Gender Equity Task Force of the American Bar Association was created to study gender bias in the legal field and recommend ways to eliminate it. Their recommendations include:

  • Develop systems that promote fairness and accuracy in billing and credit allocation.
  • Eliminate all-male or virtually all-male compensation committees.
  • Implement training and put systems into place to recognize unconscious bias and override its effects.

Other ways to fight gender bias and remedy its effects, some of which have been put into place in other countries with promising results, are:

  • Metrics—keep meticulous track of pay, types of assignments, and promotions to reveal any patterns so they can be addressed.
  • List—and adhere to—objective hiring qualifications, taking note of and justifying any instances when those qualifications are waved.
  • Eliminate the office housework problem by either assigning tasks on a rotating basis or assigning them only to support staff.

Firms are making strides, but progress is slow. One of the most important things we can do is monitor our own behavior on an individual level, and reject the cultural assumptions and expectations that we often bring to the workplace. Recognizing our own biases and making an effort to be thoughtful in judging each person on his or her own merits is the first step.