July 10, 2017

Not Suffering, Not Silent

Michele Coleman Mayes

Upon its creation 30 years ago, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession held hearings on the status of women in the legal profession. In its report presented to the ABA House of Delegates in June 1988, the Commission concluded, “[b]eginning in law school and continuing through their climb to the upper echelons of the profession, women encounter fewer opportunities for advancement, a greater degree of personal and professional scrutiny and greater pressures to balance work and family responsibilities.”

Sound familiar? So many of the experiences described by the women lawyers in that report ring as true today as in 1987. Does that mean that we only have been treading water all this time?

Absolutely not. Even though the problems may have the same label (bias, work/life balance, for instance), the mindset of the women lawyers dealing with these problems today represents a sea change in attitude. Today, all issues are fair game, and women are willing to discuss openly, expose, and/or challenge the misguided beliefs and actions that question their legitimacy. We recognize that we do not need to internalize our frustrations or only discuss these issues with family and close friends. Indeed, this is the basis of the Commission’s Grit Project, which teaches us that grit and a growth mindset are learnable traits that are key to one’s success as they can help you navigate through difficult situations.

Throughout its 30 years, the Commission, along with our allies, both female and male, has helped to create the current environment where women no longer have only two options: take what you’re given and suffer in silence—or leave. Through its cutting-edge research and development of toolkits, reports, publications, and programming addressing such issues as implicit bias, leadership, gender pay equity, and the advancement of women attorneys of color, the Commission has provided women lawyers with more and better tools, as well as a greater awareness, to navigate the often choppy legal professional waters. Further, along the way, the Commission has created a sense of community.

It has been an honor and privilege to serve as the 11th chair of the Commission. Just as we have built upon the efforts of my predecessors during my term, I look forward to my successor carrying on our work on projects including our new book, Grit, the Secret to Advancement: Stories of Successful Women Lawyers; Bias Interrupters in the Law, research on the work lives of lawyers, the results of which are helping to develop best practices in the legal profession for improving organizations’ ability to tap and develop the talent of the legal workforce; and an updated and greatly expanded sexual harassment manual. These are just some of the initiatives underway.

We must look back at these 30 years with pride as we have amplified a chorus of mellifluous voices carrying irrefutable messages that will not be silenced. We have helped women lawyers know that they have a seat at the table and not just any seat, but the one they choose. We will continue to work to achieve the ultimate goal of gender equity in the legal profession. We will create the just future we deserve.

Michele Coleman Mayes

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