Photo: AFP/Getty Images/ ISSOUF SANOGO
Photo: AFP/Getty Images/ ISSOUF SANOGO

Gender Bias in the Legal Workplace: Words Matter (Perspective)

Editor’s Note: This column is written by a professor at Campbell Law and is part of a podcast mini-series produced by Law School Transparency about women in law. This week’s theme is sexism in the work place. Learn more here

By Elizabeth E. Berenguer, Campbell University School of Law

1870. That was the year Ada Kepley became the first woman to graduate from an American law school. Since then, countless women have entered the legal profession — we have achieved membership in the club. So, should it matter if a judge calls me “hon,” or my client thinks I’m not a real lawyer, or my boss asks me to fix him a cup of coffee? As a matter of fact, it does matter.

First of all, words have power. They fix things into place and limit what they mean. When we utilize language, we can communicate because we have generally agreed on the scope and meaning of words. It’s the reason why an image of a prototypical tree pops into mind when someone says “tree.”

Secondly, meaning is constructed based on life experience. Consider that in Alaska, there are 50 Inuit words for snow, while in milder climates there may be as few as one.  This construction of meaning happens in all facets of life. In the context of law, those who practice may consider themselves lawyer, attorney, counselor, advocate, or esquire. Though each of these words means “one who practices law,” each one carries a slightly distinct connotation. Consider the number of jokes where the word “lawyer” gets substituted for “liar.” “Counselor” is frequently used in the context of providing advice to the client. “Esquire” sounds prestigious and conveys respect between lawyers.

Each word shares something else in common: they were constructed when the universe of “lawyer” was comprised primarily of influential white men. Society constructed the meaning of these words with a certain image in mind — someone who looks an awful lot like Atticus Finch. Over time, as women broke into the profession, they struggled to fit into the box of “lawyer.” They had to prove they had the right to be a part of this group that had developed for a certain type of man. Frequently, that meant women had to do it flawlessly, more efficiently, and better than a man in the same position.

My third point: meaning is alterable. At first, the challenge for women was balancing the tension between being a lady and being a lawyer. After all, ladies were considered emotional, nurturing, soft, and even irrational. These characteristics are the antithesis of lawyer traits which include rational thought, logic, and zealous argumentation. Over time, though, women have shown that they too are capable of rational thought, logic, and zealous argumentation. Even so, women have not achieved equality with men in many arenas.

The challenges facing women now are more nuanced. Their membership in the legal profession is not usually questioned, but their role and place within the profession is not exactly clear. In legal settings, women continue to be the ones assigned to administrative tasks when staff is unavailable — women are more often asked to keep the minutes, type the report, file documents, or schedule a matter. Tough litigators are often called derogatory names and told they are too aggressive. Other women are told not to smile in court lest they be considered too soft. Clients sometimes even think a woman is not a real lawyer. Women have to think much more carefully about their clothing, too. Are the heels to high? Is the skirt too short? Is the blouse too tight?

Men lawyers, on the other hand, are rarely questioned about their choice of suit or tie. They are rarely asked to perform purely administrative functions. They are rarely referred to with terms of endearment.

On the one hand, maybe a woman ought to enjoy the security represented by these subtle differences in treatment. After all, if no other man can be trusted to file, type, or prepare coffee, her job is certainly secure, right? Likewise, if the boss is calling her “sweetie” and “honey,” surely he thinks of her as family and she is secure in her place, right?

There’s just one problem: this type of security is merely an illusion.

The danger of accepting this treatment is that women buy into the belief that they are not as good as men at being a lawyer. They become convinced that they need this artificial protection because they cannot achieve success on their own. They even convince themselves that desiring greater success is not appropriate. They accept their place at the periphery of the group, and they are all too eager to make themselves useful because they rely on benevolence to remain.

Yes, words have power, and the meaning of lawyer now unquestionably includes women. But every time we call a woman by another name, and every time a woman lawyer is asked to complete a non-lawyer task, we remind her that she is still earning her place in the club. We remind her that she has only made it because men have allowed it, and they still have the power to take it away.

Listen to Law School Transparency’s podcast, titled “Hey Sweetie! Sexism in the Legal Workplace,” which discusses the daily remarks women lawyers face day-to-day including incorrect job titles, diminutives and more.

Listen to a related Roundtable on Sexism in the Legal Workplace, which features a discussion among six lawyers about their experiences in the legal profession.

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