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We’ve Come a Long Way, But We’re Not There Yet
Women lawyers truly have come a long way since the days of Myra Bradwell. But there's unfinished business even in 2013.
Many of us remember the vintage 1968 Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement that declared "You've come a long way, baby!" Sadly, the provocative tagline specifically referenced women having achieved the freedom to smoke their own brand of cigarettes which we've since determined was not such a healthy milestone - also interesting to note the then apparently acceptable use of the "baby" moniker to generally refer to women.
Nonetheless, the campaign was wildly successful, both in commercial and cultural terms, becoming almost instantly a national catchphrase. On the larger scale, the memorable takeaway was women achieving the independence to engage in behavior previously reserved only for men.
For at least two centuries, would-be women lawyers have fought for the independence to engage in men's-only activities like practicing law - starting with Illinois' own Myra Bradwell in 1873. Women lawyers have continued to fight for equal rights, achieving many firsts and much progress.
• In 1893, there were 208 female lawyers in the United States and today there are more than 300,000.
• In 1966, Constance Baker Motley became the first African-American female appointed to a federal judgeship and now there are 68 women of color serving.
• In 1977, Carole Bellows became the first woman president of the Illinois State Bar Association, and three more of us have followed.
• In 1979, Chicago lawyer Mary Ann Hynes became the first-ever female general counsel of a major corporation and now there are 108 in the Fortune 500.
• In 1980, the percentage of women law students was eight percent and in 2013 it is 45 percent.
• In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and three women justices have followed in her footsteps.
• In 1992, Mary Ann McMorrow became the first woman elected to the Illinois Supreme Court and later its first female chief; three other women justices now sit on that court and Justice Rita Garman will become its next chief.
• In 2013, Judge Diane Wood became the first female chief of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Wow, we have come a long way....And these are just a few examples of the huge strides women lawyers have made in the last 150 years, and specifically over the last few decades, but there are those who are concerned that our progress has stalled.
At the ISBA 30 Female Blackstones program in August, scattered among the many celebrations, we also heard some disappointing statistics. Consider three of the findings of the 2012 National Association of Women Lawyers' Foundation survey.
• Women lawyers make up only 15 percent of equity partners in large law firms and that number has not changed in 7 years.
• Only two percent of equity partners are women of color.
• Female equity partners earn 89 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
It is discouraging to realize that in 2013, such gender disparity still exists in our profession.
As one of four areas of focus for my presidential year, I am concentrating on women and minorities in the profession and in the ISBA. Last year, during Chicagoan Laurel Bellows' term as ABA President, she established a blue-ribbon Gender Equity Task Force to focus on this disparity, specifically looking at compensation differences between male and female partners in law firms.
The task force published three highly regarded papers and created the Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation. The toolkit is a "program in a box" containing all the components to present a thoughtful and informative program on pay-gap issues in law firms.
I knew the toolkit provided guidance on how to foster conversation to achieve gender pay equity in large law firms, so I asked our ISBA Women and the Law Standing Committee, under the leadership of DeKalb attorney Mary Petruchius, to tackle the challenge of gender pay disparity at the ISBA member level. Our primary membership is solo, small and mid-size firm practitioners.
Mary and the standing committee will be studying and modifying the ABA's toolkit to work with our members, their practices, and their needs. We hope to launch both the conversation and the change.
I am proud to be your president and I am proud to be a woman, but I am especially grateful that I can be both. We've come a long way....