How to Overcome Gender Bias When It Stares You in the Face

Volume 40 Number 3

By

About the Author

Jennifer Ator is an employment litigation attorney and mediator at Hankins & Ator PL in Miami Springs, Fla. She often speaks and writes about practice management issues and is a member of the ABA LP Publishing Board and LP Council. 

Law Practice Magazine | May/June 2014 | The Marketing IssueRECENTLY I WAS personally reminded that gender bias and stereotyping are all too alive and well in 21st-century America. The venue, of all places, was a courtroom. I was attending motion calendar 70 miles from home and arrived a few minutes into the proceedings. I sat down in the front row, and a gentleman at counsel’s table turned to me and asked if I was the court reporter. I responded “No,” and he then inquired who I was. I informed him I was an attorney. He was properly flustered as he realized his own bias, and I was so surprised by his comment that I missed the opportunity to zing him with the sarcastic reply he deserved: “I’m the waitress. Can I get you some coffee, counselor?” I found it extremely difficult to believe that a relatively young, educated man would question my presence, much less assume that I was something other than a fellow lawyer, given the setting.

GENDER BIAS BEGINS EARLY
When I was in the second grade (in the ’70s), a boy asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him a judge. He said I couldn’t be a judge because I was a girl. Now, even at seven, I thought to myself, “Well, I will show you.” And that was only the first of many instances when I would encounter gender stereotyping and discrimination.

Later, my Advanced Placement European History teacher had a predilection for challenging the young women in his class to defend their beliefs, and then regularly bullied and badgered them until they broke down and cried. Mind you, this Teacher of the Year Award–winning instructor did not apply the same level of critical rigor to the men. Compared to today’s standards, this classroom bullying behavior was treated very casually, and simply bringing the faculty member’s conduct to light was an ordeal. When I finally was able to implement a conference with the principal, the teacher, my mother and me, I explained the issues and voiced my concern that his conduct was inappropriate—and that no student should be badgered into crying in class. The teacher immediately dismissed my concerns and asserted he had done nothing wrong. Because I’d yet to hone my argumentation skills in the crucible of law school, I somehow became the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Not only was that teacher not reprimanded, but I was lucky to escape the class with my academic record unscathed. I dropped the class rather than take that abuse.

IS THERE AN ANSWER?
Sadly, my personal experience has taught me that gender bias is very real and remains prevalent. I have written on race discrimination, but this is my first column addressing gender bias issues in the profession. I simply cannot understand how a male lawyer could have seen me in a courtroom and assumed I was a court reporter. Was it a thoughtless statement while he was absorbed in some other matter, or did it accurately reflect his worldview? Either way, I’m distressed that I let it bother me so much.

I don’t purport to have the answers, but gender bias clearly is not dead and it’s certainly not going away on its own. Until there are more female judges than male ones, and more female elected officials than male ones, we are likely not going to notice any improvement with respect to women in the profession.

That being said, some male attorneys have obviously shown respect for my legal work. A male judge recently referred a case to me; I was surprised but flattered. It’s gratifying to be included on the list of possible attorneys on labor and employment issues regardless of my gender. Very gratifying, indeed.

GETTING PAST THE BIAS
Being a good lawyer, regardless of gender, is certainly a step in the right direction, but what this experience taught me is that only I can stand up for myself. It does no good to allow myself to be browbeaten by opposing counsel, and I won’t stand for it. Having the courage to speak up and confront what one views as wrong is the best way to move forward. Certainly, my mother, who stood with me against my AP European History teacher, taught me that. Likewise, one of my first supervisors, who was an elected official before becoming a lawyer, wore it as a badge of pride when she was able to get another lawyer to curse her out—or, even better, to physically assault her. It was her suit of armor, and she became well-known in the legal community as a take-no-prisoners attorney. (And she is; her reputation is well-earned and well-deserved.)

All of us must work together to eradicate gender bias for once and for all. Men must challenge themselves to look at women differently, and women need to challenge men to command the respect they have earned and deserve.  

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