Letter from the President
Originally published in the printed bar journal, Communiqué (April 2017).
“I Don’t Think That Ladies Should Be Lawyers.”
By Tami D. Cowden, Esq.
Shocking title, huh? As it happens, those words graced the cover of the ABA Journal in December of 1986, five months before I graduated from law school. The quote was from a Chicago judge, spoken in open court, and provided an excellent introduction to an article about gender bias in the profession. That article predicted that such attitudes would necessarily change, given the vastly increased number of women entering law school. And indeed, my own law school class had been the first at my school in which the majority of the incoming class was female.
For years, I kept a copy of that cover pinned to a bulletin board in my office. It was meant to be a reminder of how things had been, so that as things changed, I would not forget. Somehow, over the years, I lost that cover. But that’s not a problem, because no reminder of how things had been is necessary. There has not been all that much change.
Oh, certainly, the numbers of women in the profession have increased. And we are not likely to see or hear judges, senior partners, or other persons of power and influence in the profession express such attitudes so overtly. But what remains is something far more insidious than those open expressions of predisposition: implicit bias.
“Implicit bias” is the name given to attitudes or stereotypes that are present and affect our understanding, actions, and decision making on an subconscious level. These unconscious attitudes develop based on our own experiences, absorption of cultural attitudes and biases, and the human tendency to show a preference for things, people, and groups that share attributes with ourselves. But because the bias is not conscious, the perpetrator is unaware of its effect.
For example, studies have shown that male candidates are preferred over female candidates, even though the resumes have information that is identical, save for either masculine or feminine sounding names. And, of course, implicit bias is not limited to issues of gender. Studies have also shown that resumes of candidates with names that suggest membership in certain racial or ethnic groups receive less favorable treatment than otherwise identical resumes with more culturally neutral names.
Nor is the bias limited to hiring. Another study posed the following scenario to partners: An important client has a sudden emergency, requiring immediate action before noon. However, the associate assigned to the file is unable to come to the office due to a home emergency. Partners who were told that a female associate could not come on due to a child care emergency were less sympathetic to her, than to a male associate who could not come in due to a plumbing emergency. And when the male associate reported a child care emergency, partners were even more sympathetic than for his plumbing emergency. Significantly, the results were the same regardless of the gender of the partner! Sorry, “ladies”‒we are not immune.
Given that even the perpetrator is generally unaware of the bias, addressing implicit bias may seem an impossible task. Fortunately, that is not so. Training to recognize and acknowledge these unconscious attitudes can teach individuals to check their own processes and decision for bias. You can find training materials and other resources at the ABA’s Implicit Bias Initiative, http://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/initiatives/task-force-implicit-bias.html.
P.S. Regardless of the need for reminders, I loved that cover. So if anyone happens to have a copy of the Dec 1986 <em>ABA Journal</em> hanging around, let’s talk.