chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
September 03, 2019

Q & A – Rights of Women Leaders

Wrapping up this year's National Women's History Month, CRSJ asked the leadership of the Rights of Women Committee on what interested them in becoming a lawyer, gender equality in the legal profession, and advice for young women professionals in the legal field.

The History of National Women's History Month

Women’s History Month honors and celebrates the struggles and achievements of American women throughout the United States. It all began in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized the week beginning March 7,1982 as “Women’s History Week”. President Ronald Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 4903, proclaiming official acknowledgement of “Women’s History Week” and recognizing the role of women in history. Throughout the next years, Congress passed resolutions designating March as “Women’s History Week” and urged the President to bring greater publicity to the week so Americans would begin to study more about women’s contributions in U.S history. Thus in 1987 President Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 5619, establishing March to be “Women’s History Month” and setting the month to be an observance of honoring American women’s achievement. While there have been more proclamations since then, these proclamations celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize specific achievements of women in a variety of fields, including the law.

About the Rights of Women Committee Leaders

 Pamelya Herndon

Pamelya Herndon

Albuquerque, New Mexico CEO, KWH La Center for Social Justice and Change C-Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Rights of Women Committee

Jessica Stender

Jessica Stender

San Francisco, California, Senior Counsel, Workplace Justice & Public Policy, Equal Rights Advocates, Co-Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Rights of Women Committee

Q & A with the Rights of Women Committee Leaders

What motivated you to become a lawyer?

PH — I was motivated to become a lawyer by watching the injustices occurring in the South, particularly for families of color.  As a young girl, growing up in the State of Texas I watch communities of color being disenfranchised, denied adequate housing and generally denied access to basic civil rights.  I was motivated to attend law school to advocate against, and fight against, the injustices that I  witnessed occurring against communities of color and as I continued to advance in life, the injustices that were happening against women.

JS — First and foremost, my parents, both civil rights litigators and advocates, showed me how the law can be used as a tool to advance social justice. After I graduated from college, I worked as a paralegal at Friends of Farmworkers, a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia that provides legal assistance to migrant farmworkers throughout Pennsylvania. There are an estimated 2 to 3 million farmworkers in the United States. They plant, pick, and pack the fruits and vegetables that puts food on our tables. However, their jobs are low-paid, dangerous and isolated. Farmworkers experience high levels of wage theft and are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides.  They commonly suffer skin disorders, birth defects in children, miscarriages for pregnant mothers and other health consequences because of exposure to these toxic chemicals. Women working in the fields also experience high levels of sexual harassment and assault. We visited workers in farm labor camps where they lived at the site of employment and received calls from workers regarding workplace violations. We provided “know your rights trainings” about labor and employment protections and provided legal representation to workers. My experience working at Friends of Farmworkers showed me the power of the law in protecting workers’ rights and the importance of centering workers’ experiences in legal advocacy.  

What do you like most about your job? Least?

PH — I enjoy meeting and collaborating with individuals who share the values equality and justice and who believe in the principles of fairness and justice for all.  I have met many lawyers in my work over the past years who fight hard for these principles.    The part of my job that I dislike least is standing before courts and administrative bodies that render decisions that do not support equality for women and vulnerable populations within our cities and states, and who interpret laws in a way that do not support  large demographics in our states and throughout the nation who do not have the access, wealth or means to fight the injustices they are experiencing.   

JS — Equal Rights Advocates was founded 45 years ago with the mission of protecting and advancing economic security for women and girls. What I like most about working at ERA is that we use a variety of advocacy strategies including litigation, legislative advocacy, community education and direct services. This not only makes the work more interesting, but is also a more effective advocacy model with each area of our work informing the others. I also value the fact that we work in coalitions at the state and national level and work collaboratively with other organizations to advance priority issues including equal pay, pregnancy accommodations, and protections against sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and harassment.  The current political climate is a challenge because of the near constant attack on the basic rights and protections that we are fighting for. 

Where do you think we are in terms of gender equality in the legal profession?

PH — In the 21st Century, it is appalling that we are still struggling with fair pay for women, for pregnancy accommodations in the workplace or with the concept of paid family leave, all of which affect gender equality in the legal profession.  More than 10 years ago, women's groups designated the year 2020 as the date that gender equality will be achieved around the the country.  As we approach that date, women are still struggling to obtain first chair positions on a legal team, for fair pay in law firms and for recognition of their contributions to the legal profession.  As we peel the layers of gender equality, we still find women of color absent from major law firms, absent from litigation teams and absent from major rolls in the legal profession.   It is however, great to see the strides that the ABA has taken to elect women to leadership positions.  Now it is time for our organization to form more leadership conferences and initiatives with major funding organizations around the country devoted to developing and training more women for leadership positions in the legal profession.   

JS — While there have been advances in terms of gender equality in the legal profession, significant barriers remain. Pay discrimination and sexual harassment are still rampant in the legal profession. Women lawyers on average earn just 79% of that of their male counterparts. One study, “First Chairs at Trial,” found that although 36% of lawyers are women, in 71% of the class actions studied, both lead counsel were men, 76% of lead counsel in federal civil trials were men and 87% of lawyers appearing as lead counsel in class actions were men. Within law firms, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers Annual Survey Report, although women are hired in nearly equal numbers as men at the associate level (46%), they make up only 30% of non-equity partners and 19% of equity partners. The percentage of women equity partners rose just 3% in 10 years. Finally, women of color make up only 2% of equity partners. Women are also severely underrepresented in leadership positions within law firms. Women hold just 25% of firm governance roles, such as serving on highest governance committee, compensation committee, or as a managing or practice group partner/leader.

There have been some important developments in terms of promoting broader gender equity and representation in the law, including most recently when the ABA amended Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 to specifically prohibit conduct "a lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law." Twenty five states then followed suit and enacted ethical rule amendments addressing harassment and discrimination. Some law firms have taken a proactive approach to evaluating and modifying recruitment, promotion and retention polices and practices to try to include diversity and ensure better representation at all levels. However, there is still much work.

What is your greatest advice for young female lawyers/ women in law school?

PH — I would advise women in law school and young women lawyers to find a mentor to help direct their career so that wisdom learned from women who have been the trailblazers before they can be tapped for their knowledge and foresight on how to navigate leadership paths.  I highly recommend that women in law school and young women lawyers join together to form collations that support each other to rise in leadership positions where they are making policies, rules, regulations and laws that support women.  Remember to take others with you as you rise in your career.   Most important, remember that we are not helpless.  There is nothing that we can imagine that we cannot achieve.

JS — Seek out mentors among faculty members and within the profession.
Including me: jstender@equalrights(dot)org