Empowering women for a stronger future
On March 8, 2018, a group of women attorneys from the Kane County Bar Association (KCBA) Women in the Law Committee celebrated International Women’s Day over lunch while engaging in lively conversation. The topic? The progress of women in the legal field. Midway through the discussion, one attendee posed the question of why, in 2018, we are still having to discuss whether women have made progress in the legal field. It is a question that unfortunately cannot be answered easily, but one that, thanks to recent cultural movements, may someday no longer need to be asked. Cultural movements such as the #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #BanBossy have sparked dialogue that is long overdue. However, the question remains—is this dialogue enough to inspire change?
During that March 8 meeting, the Women in the Law Committee discussed some of these movements as they relate to the legal profession we are a part of. Not too long ago, women lawyers were hard to find in Kane County. In fact, during the 1970s, the legal field was male-dominated and the term “hobby lawyers” was often used to describe female attorneys with children. It was not uncommon for male counterparts to comment on the way women attorneys dressed or for there to be dress codes prohibiting women from wearing certain clothing.
Now, however, women are more present in the legal profession than ever. In 2016, the American Bar Association reported that, for the first time ever, women make up over 50 percent of law students.1 One-third of the United States Supreme Court justices are women. In Kane County, we have nine female judges and the current chief judge is a female as well. Yet, according to the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission’s 2016 Annual Report, women accounted for only 38 percent of the attorneys registered in Illinois.2 Stories of ill-placed comments on the appearance of female attorneys are less common and, hopefully, the term “hobby lawyer” is no longer used. The perception is that women have made major strides within the legal field, but to what extent are women still facing an uphill climb in the legal field compared to our male counterparts? How can female attorneys use some of these social movements to bring positive change to our positions in the legal field? And how can women work collectively to continue making strides?
In 2014, Sheryl Sandberg started a campaign to discourage the use of the word “bossy” when describing girls, as the term has a negative connotation and therefore discourages girls from becoming leaders.3 The purpose of the “#BanBossy Campaign” was to empower girls to explore leadership roles and encourage them to be assertive like their male counterparts. BanBossy received polarized reviews. Supporters of the campaign included celebrities such as Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, and Jennifer Garner. However, there are many opponents to the campaign as well, who believe that banning the use of the word “bossy” will not solve the root of the problem, namely, that leadership and assertiveness are most often seen as male qualities.
Our Women in the Law Committee discussed this campaign in relation to our roles as female attorneys. There is a perception amongst the public, and perhaps within our legal community, that a good attorney is an assertive attorney, one that will fight to the death for their client and that does not give in to the opposing side. Clients seek out attorneys that are known for their tough courtroom or negotiating skills. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear someone describe an attorney as a “bulldog in the courtroom.” It seems, then, that “assertiveness” is a good quality for an attorney to possess, right? Why, then, are assertive women often considered “bossy” but assertive male attorneys are not? It would seem that female attorneys exhibiting the same assertive, bulldog-like qualities as a male attorney should be in high demand, much like their male counterparts. Yet, it is more likely that these female attorneys will be perceived as bossy or b**chy, rather than successful and effective.
What if, instead of banning the use of the word “bossy” or accepting the toxicity of the word, we begin to see the word differently? If “bossy” is really the female version of being assertive, why not look at the word as having the same meaning as assertive? A female lawyer described as bossy can mean that she is in control, knows what needs to be done, and is not afraid of providing direction and guidance to others. It can also indicate that she is assertive. Are these not all qualities of a leader? Women may not be able to control other people calling them bossy, but we certainly can control how the word is viewed by others. So why not embrace the word and start changing it into a positive descriptor of strong, assertive, and competent women? It is incumbent on male counterparts to support the re-invention of the perception of words such as “bossy” as well. Changing how people view certain descriptors used to describe female attorneys can lead to the empowerment of women in the legal field, giving them the courage to continue breaking down barriers in the legal field.
There is a TED Talk from 2016 by Reshma Saujani titled “Teach Bravery, Not Perfection.”4 She ran for a state congressional seat when she was 33-years-old. Throughout her campaign, she was convinced that she was going to win and bring a female’s voice to a traditionally male-dominated sector. Saujani lost, and she lost badly. Her discussion, however, was not about failure. It was about how it took courage for her to run for an office at the age of 33. She went on to found Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. In the five years the company has been around, it had grown from teaching 20 girls how to code to now teaching almost 40,000 girls by the end of this year.5 Saujani has partnered with some of the largest tech companies across the country to get more women employed in the field of computer science, as it is still a heavily male-dominated industry. Without spoiling the entire TED Talk, which I highly encourage everyone to watch, Saujani posits the idea that girls, from a young age, are taught to be perfect, while boys are taught to be adventure-seekers. Girls are taught to make sure their appearances are just right before they leave the house, yet very little, if any, emphasis is put on the appearance of boys before they leave the house. In school, girls are less likely to volunteer answers, not because they do not know the answer, but because they are fearful of possibly being wrong and how they may be perceived by their peers. Boys are encouraged to explore, try new things, and (gasp) be wrong sometimes. We are not encouraging young girls to take risks or be imperfect. This leads to young girls who are afraid to voice their opinions, try new things, and grow.
This does not stop when girls grow up either. By not teaching girls to be brave when they are young, we are setting those girls up to translate that need for perfection into their professional world. Many believe this is part of the reason men still dominate in leadership roles. Men are willing to take a chance at something and experience missteps along the way because they have been taught from early on that it is ok to take chances. This mentality plays out in the legal field on a daily basis. Men still hold the majority of judicial positions, they represent the majority of partners in law firms, and they are more likely to first chair a trial than women. While this might be in part due to other factors, a driving force behind this is that women are hesitant to take the risks associated with obtaining those positions out of fear of not being perfect. Women may not be willing to run a campaign to be elected for a judicial position because losing would mean failure. Women may not seek a partner position within in a law firm out of fear that they may not be perfect in carrying out their responsibilities as partner. Women may be fearful of taking a first chair position on a trial because they might make a mistake and therefore not present the perfect trial (if there is even such a thing). Men, for the most part, do not worry about perfection – they gravitate toward challenges.
The amazing thing about all of this is that women possess qualities inherent to them that can be incredibly beneficial to the legal profession, but, due to this “perfection over bravery” mentality, they may not be willing to take a risk in embracing those qualities. For instance, women tend to score higher than men on emotional intelligence tests.6 Higher emotional intelligence has several benefits to the legal profession, including connecting with clients better and developing lasting relationships with clients, listening to clients better, and relating to jurors and witnesses.7 Yet emotional intelligence in an attorney is often overlooked for qualities such as experience, legal competency and results. If women were encouraged from a young age to have a fearless mentality, it is not hard to imagine a world where women would bring their unique qualities, such as higher emotional intelligence, into the legal field and thrive. Encouraging women to strive for risk taking rather than perfection will open a world of opportunities for women solely because women will be empowered to take chances and fail, but more importantly, take chances and succeed—just like men.
As a young attorney that grew up in the Kane County legal community, I always enjoy hearing stories of how our legal community has grown and expanded over the years. What I enjoy even more is listening to the stories of the trailblazer female attorneys that came before me and paved the way for me to take part in this legal community. It amazes me to hear how far we have come (I have to admit I am happy that I do not hear the term “hobby lawyer” used anymore). But I cannot help but to look at the future and see a vast opportunity for even further growth for women in our legal community. As so many of these social movements are underscoring, women have the power, and the duty, to empower themselves and each other. We can change the way certain terms used to describe us are perceived by the public, embrace those qualities that are uniquely ours, and start teaching younger girls that it is acceptable, in fact encouraged, to take chances and risks. However, none of this will work without support and encouragement from within. As women lawyers, we have to band together, support each other and encourage each other in order for progress to continue. Discussions on the progress of women in the legal field will never go away, but by continuing these important discussions, and starting to take action as a collective group, women can start making these discussions less about how far we still have to go and more about how far we have come.
Lindsay K. Sanchez is an associate attorney with Vanek, Larson & Kolb, LLC in St. Charles, Illinois, who concentrates her practice in business organizations, commercial law, civil litigation and transactional law. She earned her J.D. degree from Northern Illinois University College of Law in 2013. Lindsay can be reached at (630) 513-9800 or email@example.com.
This article was originally published in the Kane County Bar Association’s Bar Briefs April 2018 Diversity issue.
1. Elizabeth Olson, Women Make Up Majority of U.S. Law Students for First Time, N.Y. Times, Dec. 16, 2016.