November 10, 2014

Amplifying Our Voices

Michele Coleman Mayes

The Commission on Women in the Profession is proud to serve as an important catalyst for change and has worked tirelessly to secure the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession for more than 25 years. As time passes, it often feels as if we are speaking about these gender equality issues within an echo chamber. While women lawyers unquestionably have made progress during the last 25 years, many of the issues—or some variation thereof—that we addressed decades ago are still in plain sight or lurking in the shadows.

What, then, will it take to accelerate sustainable progress?

We need to amplify our voices, as we focus on research, outreach, and systemic change.

Research. Consider this insight from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s foreword to What Works for Women at Work, by Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey (2014), at xv: “[W]e are living and working in a world shaped by deeply, deeply embedded assumptions about gender roles. These assumptions are laid down from infancy onward and create a set of filters in our brains that condition our interpretation of virtually all human interaction. Only with cleverly designed experiments in the relatively new field of experimental social psychology are we able to tease them out.” When we give a name to an issue—for instance, grit/growth mindset or implicit bias—issues related to the struggle for gender equality become real. When we offer solid research in support, these issues become more credible, as do those individuals who champion them. Expect to be enlightened by the wealth of research on these issues that the Commission is able to apply to the legal profession.

Outreach. We need to listen to the voices of those who have worked on gender equality issues, as well as new voices. We must include both men and women, of all generations, as well as those of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. The Commission will bring together groups of different voices to have meaningful conversations on a range of topics related to the role and advancement of women. The insights gained from these discussions ultimately will serve as the basis of a new Commission publication.

Systemic change. Strategies for individuals are important, and we never underestimate the power of one. But we also must continue to work for systemic/organizational change. With a unified voice, we will be able to exact the change we seek. The Commission will put forth bias interrupters that will identify how bias is playing out in the real world and provide ways to stop it. This means organizations must be willing to experiment with these interrupters, as this is an iterative process.

As I begin my term as chair, I thank our outgoing chair, Roberta D. Liebenberg, for her exceptional guidance and leadership this past year. During her return to the Commission, Bobbi spearheaded new initiatives that have left the Commission primed for the years ahead.

It is exciting to return to the Commission as chair, having served previously as a Commission member. I look forward to working with you to amplify our voices and, as Anne-Marie Slaughter noted, “to balance awareness and activism with getting it done as professionally as we know how.”

Michele Coleman Mayes

Michele Coleman Mayes is chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession. She is vice president, general counsel, and secretary for the New York Public Library.