Opinión | 09.09.2020

Women Leaders of the Bar Day

The history of women in the legal profession reflects a fascinating pattern by which to view the progress of women in society around the world. A career in law for anyone already naturally highlights several fundamental qualities of the feminist movement: assertive, persuasive advocates, fighting to promote equality, defending justice, and upholding the rule of law, whether on a small local stage or in the International Criminal Courts. Yet, despite widespread international adoptions of women’s initiatives and an overall recognition of the challenge women face in their careers, women are still underrepresented in positions of leadership in the private and public sector. There persists a large gender parity within the law, specifically when it comes to the advancement of women to leadership positions. This trend is even more alarming and concerning since women are attending law school and entering the profession at an even larger rate than men. Now with the added challenge of a global pandemic, the call for more proactive, equity measures that not only encourage women to enter a career in law, but also support and promote existing women in law, is louder than ever before.    

In September I was lucky enough to participate in the Women Leaders of the Bar Days and hear first-hand how women around the world have navigated the complexities of the profession and succeeded. The Capsule continued for three weeks, each event hosted in a different language, the first French, followed by English and then Spanish. All of the participants brought valuable insight, well-grounded in their unique experiences. Despite the numerous disadvantages that COVID-19 has brought to our everyday life, I found, as a young woman looking towards a career in law, that I felt incredibly grateful and inspired to be able to listen to such accomplished women speak in a context, that otherwise, would not be virtual and accessible to me.

Since I participated in both capsules, in French and English, I appreciated the similarities and differences among the diverse groups of people and ideas. Despite their geographic distance, all of the participants touched on many common themes and tendencies of gender parities. The main obstacles highlighted include, identifying and fighting unconscious bias, balancing one’s professional and personal life, battling a lack of advancement opportunities, and navigating social and professional networks that favor men. Although these challenges may seem insurmountable, I found these conferences to be perfect examples of the ways by which women and men can come together to create constructive change.

At points, I found it difficult to digest the alarming statistics that many of the speakers, including Féral-Schuhl outlined. From ages five through fourteen, I attended single sex education institutions and went to a college that was previously all-women and is now co-ed. Growing up I was lucky enough to be taught and surrounded by strong and intelligent women so I never questioned that a woman’s voice is just as powerful and salient as a man’s. There were, of course, moments throughout my education and adolescence where I was challenged and occasionally type-cast, but it was not truly until I entered the workforce that I faced blatant gender imbalances when it came to equal representation. According to the panelists, this is not a new or unique phenomenon, as women are graduating law school at even greater rates than men, yet they are still paid less and hold significantly fewer leadership positions later in their careers than men. Law firms have failed to consistently promote women to partner roles, often relying on parenthood, which is an overly simplistic explanation. These statistics are even more glaring for women of color. The gap between women’s academic achievement and their subsequent careers cannot be dismissed as circumstantial.

One of the first speakers during the French capsule, Christaine Féral-Schuhl, the President of the National Bar Council, addressed this issue, making a particularly compelling argument for the use of quotas. This is a question and potential solution I have always found interesting, if not often controversial specifically in the United States, but one that needs to be discussed more.

Madame Féral-Schuhl admitted she was once hesitant to require such rigid quotas, but when she saw the tangible effects of appointment and hiring processes, she soon realized how well the quotas worked. When appointing members to the National Bar Council, there is a mandate that the group is made up of fifty percent men and fifty percent women, and she has been encouraged by the balance in her everyday work. These quotas do not give either gender an advantage over the other, they simply ensure equity and promote diversity, while also providing encouragement to young female lawyers.

I believe establishing quotas confirms the importance and necessity of equal representation and ultimately has an efficient and powerful impact. It is up to firms, companies and governments to look at their own policies and practices to see whether they are valuing, supporting and investing in the women who work for them. I have always prioritized these kinds of company policies and culture building initiatives as I have looked for employment at various times and believe many other young women do the same. Many of the speakers called for the adoption of zero tolerance policies concerning harassment and the continued emphasis on diversity and inclusion.  

Specifically, Stephanie Boyce, the Deputy Vice-President of the Law Society of England Wales, London, UK, addressed other potential solutions to increase accountability and diversity in hiring and promotion practices. She called for the need to acknowledge the unconscious gender and racial biases that exist and to find ways to counteract them. Implementing flexible working options is an important and tangible practice that would support women. Many speakers discussed the difficulty of finding a positive work-life balance, a challenge that so often unfairly falls on women more than men. If workplaces established stricter guidelines, as well as provided additional resources, then hopefully fewer women would have to choose between staying a few hours late at the office with the hopes of gaining a promotion and picking their child up from school. These kinds of changes are important now more than ever, since the impact of COVID-19 has drastically changed the way work obligations seep into home life.

Finally, while it can feel disheartening to acknowledge all of the changes that still need to happen, as a young woman looking towards a career in law I was encouraged to witness the international community that can assemble in a simple zoom call. Many of the speakers also touched on the importance of promoting the mentorship of other young women, not only to increase the profession’s retention rate, but also to provide support and to foster collaboration between generations. There was an interesting question posed at the end of the English capsule which touched on the stereotype that it is often women themselves who are the harshest to each other. Paola Fudakowsa, the past President of the International Association of Young Lawyers, dispelled this belief and emphasized that so often these kinds of assumptions come from a lack of communication and negative culture that is antithetical to the feminist movement. She stressed the value of mentorship among women in the field and encouraged young lawyers to continue to prioritize those relationships. To this point, I was thankful to have the opportunity to listen to the impactful stories and advice of these incredibly accomplished women. I do believe that one of the greatest barriers for us, as women, is not recognizing our own potential to succeed because of a lack of representation in positions of power.

As I write this a few weeks after her passing, I cannot help but think about Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and the legacy she left behind, so that so many others could follow. A true pioneer, she advocated that, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception." Her words, granted, are extremely powerful, but, in my opinion, should be assumed. I have never questioned that women belong in places where decisions are made. However, I recognize, now more than ever, how fortunate I was to have been exposed to strong female role models since I was young and in order to continue that trend women need to continue to be in leadership positions. The relationships I have made have informed the way I think about myself and my future career and aspirations. To me, this proves that women have made progress when it comes to education and building the foundations upon which we can succeed, but we still need to fight for the opportunities that follow.

By Devan Gallagher
Intern - Munger, Tolles, & Olson LLP
San Francisco - USA

Devan Gallagher is currently a research assistant with the UIA, working with the Immediate Past President, Jerome Roth.  She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a degree in Political Science and French.  Devan is currently preparing to go to law school and hopes to pursue a career in law.