July 10, 2013

Advocacy: “Women’s Issues” Become Professional, Societal Issues

G.M. Filisko

When she founded the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., in 1972, Marcia Greenberger was told the issues she was raising weren’t serious and, as a result, she wouldn’t be taken seriously either. She did it anyway and ended up building a legacy that surprises even her.

“I have to admit I didn’t anticipate the job would be a career,” Greenberger says. “I wasn’t sure the project and ultimately the organization I was founding would be able to sustain itself, let alone grow and develop in prestige. I also didn’t understand the complexity of the barriers that stood and still stand in the way of women and girls living up to their full potential. I just decided to go for it because the issues were so important to me.”

Another veteran women’s advocate, Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum in New York City, recalls the skepticism in 1987 when she gave a presentation to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession on what it was like to be a woman lawyer.

“After [the presentation], I heard that Randolph Thrower, who’d headed and resigned from the Internal Revenue Service when President Richard Nixon tried to use it for political purposes, was rolling his eyes,” Schafran says. “He said he was going home to find the truth. He put together a meeting of his own daughter and three other prominent lawyers and was so shocked by what he heard that he became our poster boy, traveling around the country supporting our efforts.”

Few people are rolling their eyes anymore. In society and the profession, advocating for women has paid huge dividends. “We don’t have enough women in the top ranks, but we have many women there,” says Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law at Austin.

“Also, the number of women general counsels has more than doubled in the last 20 years to 22 percent,” she continues. “They set the tone for their offices and determine who gets work, so that’s a tremendous gain for all women in the profession. We still have very, very far to go in getting parity at the top. But we now have women using the power of the purse not only to effectuate change but also to support other women.”

Achieving the Lead, Advocating as One

Roberta Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C. in Philadelphia, agrees more women achieving leadership positions is key to continued forward progress. “The real issue is the implicit biases that affect women in assignments, compensation, and advancement, and they really require structural changes to be resolved,” she says.

“For example, on pay equity for equity partners, among the questions that need to be addressed are: What’s the composition of the compensation committee; how many women and minorities are on it? Things like having a critical mass on compensation committees will really move the needle for women.”

Schafran, too, sees gains and more work ahead. “The sad thing is that apart from what I call the front-yard issues, like not calling women lawyers ‘honey’ in front of the jury, in many respects, we could take the gender-bias commission reports from the 1990s off the shelf, put today’s date on them, and they’d be current,” Schafran says.

“That’s not to say there hasn’t been tremendous improvement in the law around things like domestic violence, family law, and so on,” she continues. “A big example is recognition that what used to be called choking is really attempted murder. States are changing laws so choking is no longer a misdemeanor but a felony and educating law enforcement on how to determine if someone’s been choked. But the law is only as good as the one in power to enforce it.”

The greatest achievement may be that today more women recognize the need to advocate as one. “We’ve become more connected,” Chanow says. “We’ve got women lawyers’ organizations working more closely together to advance issues like the ABA’s Gender Equity Task Force. It’s so risky for one woman to raise the issue of compensation. But when you have many women doing that, there’s a community working together to resolve an issue.”

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.