LST's Women in the Law

Hey Sweetie! Sexism in the Legal Workplace

Kyle McEntee, Executive Producer
Kimber Russell, Producer

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Transcript

Sarah Schnautz: "How much does she actually know?" "Wonder where she went to law school?" "How long has she been out?" "I wonder what kind of experience she has with this?"

Elizabeth Dickinson: We exist within this history of how gender works in the United States and around the world. And in the United States, there really was a time that males were attorneys and lawyers and females were support staff.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet: I was consistently asked if I was a secretary. Consistently. And I think it was because they just hadn't had regular experience with women of color being attorneys.

Kathryn Cockrill: There's a lot of sweeties, honeys, and you're thinking, well we're here in a mediation, and you can call me counselor, thank you.

Kimber Russell: I'm Kimber Russell. Welcome to LST's mini-series about women in the law. Over the next six weeks, we'll discuss how women are portrayed in popular culture, the profession's leaky pipeline, and more. This week, we take a look at sexism. Even in the 21st century, it's around us in some obvious and some not so obvious ways.

Kathryn Cockrill: I remember specifically sitting in a conference room and him saying, sweetheart can you go get us some coffee? And there were other lawyers in there, and I almost felt like if I left the room to get everybody coffee, was I going to miss something, were they going to make deals without me? So it made me feel very uncomfortable, and I just said I don't know how to make coffee and I sat there and I just ignored their request. And I'm sure I came off so incredibly rude.

My name is Kathryn Cockrill, and I am an estate planning and probate attorney in Charleston, South Carolina.

Kimber Russell: Kathryn's story highlights the tough position sexism places women in. Saying "no" to a politely asked—even if not actually polite—request breaks the norms of polite society. Either you capitulate and miss out, or you are rude.

Although these stories can and do happen everywhere, there does seem to be more of it in the south.

Kathryn Cockrill: it's got to be 400 times worse. I grew up in Northern New Jersey. I'm one of 4 girls, so my dad just raised us to be really strong women. And I had great role models. All of my grandmas were very educated. Upon graduating law school, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina for my now husband. It's a hard thing to come in from the north and get yourself into such a tight knit good old boy's system.

There's a lot of sweeties, honeys, and you're thinking, well we are here in a mediation, and you can call me counselor, thank you.

Kimber Russell: Kathryn's former boss was a member of the local yacht club in Charleston—a real world example of an old boys' club.

Kathryn Cockrill: And I know he always went to the yacht club for lunch, and he told me that they all sit at the back bar and that women were not allowed at the back bar. I know a lot of lawyers, a lot of the male attorneys, will gather there.

I don't like to associate with people who don't think that I'm just as capable as a man. The thing that I really like about the area of law that I practice in is that the probate judge in Charleston is Judge Irvin Condon, and he has two associates, and it's Judge Tamara Curry and Judge Nina Kershner. And seeing these women that are on the bench that I truly respect as attorneys and as judges, I find that it's a little bit easier to go to court and to be taken seriously sometimes as a younger woman in the south.

Kimber Russell: Like many women, Kathryn has resigned herself to the fact that some people just won't change.

Kathryn Cockrill: I've had a few instances where I was very taken back but since I've been down here for approximately 7 years now, I find that you just have to chalk it up to: this is the system, this is how they were raised, and some people do not believe that women are on the same level—and it is what it is.

Kimber Russell: Virginia Hoptman is an appellate litigator in Northern Virginia. She's at a boutique firm now, but previously was a partner at a biglaw firm.

Virginia Hoptman: The firm I worked at was a southern footprint firm. To me the sort of opening of doors and the gentile language is much less of a problem. Women litigators have a particularly hard time because your client is often going to want to feel like you know you're going to be the boxer in the ring for them, so they want you to be very aggressive, but a lot of times when a woman has that kind of behavior there are negative connotations that come with it.

Kimber Russell: Virginia is talking about the kind of sexism that's not so obvious.

Virginia Hoptman: It is a lot more insidious, and that's true of any kind of bias.

Kimber Russell: We spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson about the effects of the more subtle variations of sexism.

Elizabeth Dickinson: My name is Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson. I'm a clinical assistant professor of communication in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One of the effects is that it can create this thing called imposter syndrome. You are constantly doubting with a lot of emotional and psychological effort. The effects of implicit bias on the individual target starts with their body. We're trying to think in the moment how to respond to it. Do I attend to it now in this situation, do I wait and think about it because I don't want to overreact but what happens if I underreact.

Kimber Russell: Men and women experience these physiological effects the same way. Likewise, she says, everyone is biased.

Elizabeth Dickinson: We have these very ingrained, belief systems, schemas, patterns that guide how we interact with individuals in the world. And these at an implicit level are things we don't even know that we do. People tell me all the time, "I don't have implicit biases." It's really difficult for us to acknowledge that we as human beings are flawed and that we have these. Yet the person who is the recipient can see it very clearly, so it becomes very much this perceptual disconnect.

Kimber Russell: After the break, we'll hear from lawyers around the country about the practical impact of sexism. But first, Law School Transparency wants to give a special thank you to Wake Forest University. The law school, business school, provost, Pro Humanitate Institute, AJC Center, and Women's Center hosted a roundtable about sexism that you can listen to however you're listening right now. You can also visit LSTRadio.com to read transcripts, guest bios, and get a sneak peek of what's to come.

Suzanne Reynolds: Hello I'm Suzanne Reynolds, dean of Wake Forest Law School. At Wake Forest we educate the whole person for a professional lifetime. Our committment to create citizen lawyers is reflected in our graduates who seek purpose-filled lives in the spirit of our motto, pro humanitate.

Kimber Russell: Through dozens of interviews for this series, the most common problem is mistaken job titles.

Valerie Barnhart: I cannot tell you how many times that I show up for a hearing and I'm asked by opposing counsel, or potentially the deputy, whether I'm the court reporter.

Kimber Russell: That's Valerie Barnhart. She's a partner at Kelley Kronenberg. She also co-chaired the Florida Bar's Young Lawyers Division's Commission on Women in the Profession. The commission released a report in 2015 based on a survey of nearly 500 young lawyers.

Valerie Barnhart: We really wanted to take the temperature of female attorneys in the State of Florida. Let's first find out from the constituents and the attorneys that we serve: what problems they are facing, what help they need, what can we address that's focused on the gender issue.

Kimber Russell: This report confirmed many people's lived experiences. In addition to many discouraging findings about work-life balance, leadership and advancement opportunities, and diminutives, respondents frequently reported being mistaken for court reporters, paralegals, translators, and assistants.

Valerie Barnhart: The overall consensus was that it was not surprising—that it shouldn't be—but it really didn't come as a shock to anybody.

Kimber Russell: On the surface, mistaken job titles knock you on the head much in the same way that sweeties do. But lurking underneath are systemic challenges. Here again is Elizabeth Dickinson, the UNC professor who studies gender and the workplace.

Elizabeth Dickinson: We exist within this history of how gender works in the United States and around the world. And in the United States, there really was a time that we all know that males were attorneys and lawyers and females were staff.

Kimber Russell: But that doesn't make it any less frustrating for women today.

Sarah Schnautz: My name is Sarah Schnautz and I do civil insurance defense.

I had gone to court just to get a simple routine motion filed and you know, we had waited and waited and waited. There was a bunch of us waiting for the clerk to appear that day. And I was in the elevator about an hour later with one other gentleman who was also waiting with me. And I made a simple comment of like, "Man, I did not dress in a full suit today, and we ended up being in front of the judge and I feel embarrassed about that." And he goes, "Oh, you are an attorney?"

Kimber Russell: Your first instinct may be that he just wasn't paying attention during her motion. In most scenarios, a credible-sounding argument can be made that there's nothing to it. But when you look at the aggregate examples from women, the accumulation simply can't be ignored.

At the core, mistaken job titles are about expectations and what many members of society envision when they hear: lawyer.

Rahysa Vargas is a defense attorney in south Florida. She's experienced this from plaintiffs, opposing counsel, bailiffs, and court reporters.

Rahysa Vargas: They still believe that who's going to be walking into that door is going to be a male attorney. I'll come up to somebody that owns a company and explain what our law firm has and they'll say, "Oh I have," and they may not notice that they're doing it but they'll say, "Oh I have a man that does this" or whatever. So I don't know if they're purposely saying that they have a male that does that kind of job for them, but I have noticed that's something that always comes up. I've never had anybody tell me, "Oh I have a woman attorney."

Kimber Russell: Lindsey Seeskin feels the same way about the prejudgment of women attorneys.

Lindsey Seeskin: There seems to be, in a sense, this preconception that men are at the top of their game and completely know what they're doing and can handle everything.

I think in any job there is an element of having to prove yourself, having to prove your worth, having to prove that you are completely capable of doing the work that's being asked of you. And you know in a variety of experiences ina variety of jobs that I've had, sometimes there have been men that other attorneys assume can absolutely do the job and you almost have to, not be pushy, but be a bit more assertive about the fact that, hold on a second, I can actually do this, let me do this and I will prove to you that I absolutely can.' But the fact that I have to prove it and it is assumed for somebody else raises some questions.

Kimber Russell: Consistently, the younger women attorneys we interviewed had trouble distinguishing between age and gender-based bias. Litigator Sarah Schnautz has experienced this over and over again.

Sarah Schnautz: The biggest thing that I face is I am still relatively pretty young and I think that I do not get as much respect as people should give me and I deserve only because I am young and I am a woman and I have a pretty big baby face. And I know I sound like I am five years old.

Lindsey Seeskin: You show up and you're relatively young and you're female and other attorneys, they're often times, older men, make an assumption, "Oh you must be the court reporter you can't possibly be the attorney?" Uhh, no, I am the attorney and I'm here for the deposition. I don't know whether it's because I'm female, or because I'm young, or because they just don't know who they're talking about.

Kimber Russell: Women of color have similar challenges. Kimberly Baker Guillemet works for the Los Angeles Mayor's office.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet: I think that as a woman of color, you're always in this position where you question your treatment, and you're trying to determine: Is this person racist or is this person sexist?

Kimber Russell: Or is this person just a jerk? It can be really hard to tell. Take this story from Kimberley.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet: When I was at the Attorney General's office there was a woman who was new. So I saw her at the coffee machine one day. She had probably been there about three days, and I introduced myself and said: "Hi, I'm Kimberley, good to meet you." And she looked at me, put her head down, and said in a condescending tone: "Who are you? What are you, a secretary?" And I laughed and I said, no not at all, I'm actually a deputy attorney general.

Kimber Russell: Just a few days later, Kimberley's boss called her into her office. She asked Kimberley to help the new hire with her writing.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet: So I went to her office and I said, "Hi I'm Kimberley. I'm actually here to help you with some of your filings and with writing." And I saw the look on her face; she was absolutely mortified because not only did she assume I was a secretary, but now this woman who'd she'd assumed was a secretary solely based on the color of her skin, was now being brought in to help her. I was consistently asked if I was a secretary. Consistently. I think it was because they just hadn't had regular experience with women of color being attorneys.

Kimber Russell: It's definitely not just men who are guilty of unfair or outdated assumptions about women. Elizabeth Dickinson cautions against that sort of thinking.

Elizabeth Dickinson: We often insinuate that it's males doing something—that it's this sort of very one directional discrimination—and it's not.

Kimber Russell: After all, men and women grow up in the same society with the same longstanding biases about women's roles.

Rita Greggio, a government attorney in Chicago, told us how supervisors, male and female, have treated her like she needed protection.

Rita Greggio: One of the things that I find kind of insulting is supervisors telling me that they see me like a daughter. That is something that has happened to me more than once. I find it insulting, actually. There is this idea that you are a child, you need protection, that they're going to help you because they have this parent kind of view of you. It has once before happened with a woman saying, "Oh, I think of you as a daughter." But more often it has happened with male supervisors.

Kimber Russell: That's not the only way that women are diminished on a daily basis in the legal profession.

Sarah Schnautz: Something little that I also find, especially when I am on a case with a lot of opposing counsel people will address to Mr. so and so and Mr. so and so and Mr. so and so… And Sarah. And it is like, do I not deserve to be called Miss Schnautz?

Kimber Russell: Time and again it comes down to respect. Lea Gutierrez, a government attorney in Chicago, is among countless women in the profession who simply want to be treated as an equal.

Lea Gutierrez: I don't feel that I get the respect that I deserve. I haven't really chosen to reflect on why, and perhaps have made excuses for it like, oh maybe it's because of a lack of experience. But as I sit here and reflect on it, that couldn't be because I do know of men who are less experienced than I am and quite frankly who I am just as qualified as, who do get that respect when they speak.

Kimber Russell: It's tough to give specific advice on how or whether to address sexism. And it's complicated by our status as attorneys. We often have client obligations, an obligation to make our firms profitable, and a myriad of factors that limit the scope of appropriate responses.

Lea Gutierrez: How eGreggious is the conduct, what effect is it having on people, what effect is it having on the organization? And depending on the answers to those questions I will determine whether or not I feel it's something that I need to address. But if I'm going to address it, I'm going to back away first. I have my very small circle of people that I trust. I go and talk to them, bounce things off them, make sure that I'm not overreacting, and then tailor the message really to what I think the person will hear. Maybe you're not going to change people's opinion but you want to change the behavior.

Kimber Russell: Whether through law or policy or gentle nudges, enforcing behavioral change can certainly lead to attitudinal changes over time. Lea's co-worker Rita Greggio echoes this sentiment.

Rita Greggio: You do have to pick your battles. I do tend to let a lot of things go. My personal view is that a lot of one on one interactions you're not going to change that person's mind. That's the battle, you've got to focus on the war, which is changing society.

Kimber Russell: Thanks for tuning in. Stick around and listen to the roundtable discussion we held at Wake Forest University in North Carolina about the role sexism continues to play in our profession. I'm Kimber Russell. This episode was produced by Kyle McEntee. Music by Brad Kemp. Thank you to all of our guests and to Olympia Duhart, Marissa Olsson, Ashley Milne-Tyte, Carin Ulrich Stacey, and Susan Poser for your help. We also want to thank Diversity Lab for a generous donation very early in the project. Next week, we look at how women lawyers are portrayed on screen and by journalists.

Women in the Law is a production of Law School Transparency. To learn more about LST, visit https://www.lawschooltransparency.com. To learn more about this mini-series, visit http://www.LSTRadio.com/women/.

Columns

Podcast Guests

Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson
Kathryn Cockrill
Kimberley Baker Guillemet
Leah Guitierrez
Lindsey Seeskin
Rahysa Vargas
Rita Gregio
Sarah Schnautz
Valerie Barnhart
Virginia Hoptman

Roundtable Guests

Catharine Arrowood
Alison Ashe-Card
Mireille Clough
Clara Cottrell
Judge Larry Fine
Professor Shannon Gilreath

Moderators

Kimber Russell
Kyle McEntee

Columnists

Elizabeth Berenguer, Law Professor at Campbell University School of Law
Melissa Levine-Piro, Attorney in Greater Boston Area
Gabriella Martin, Law Student at Quinnipiac University School of Law
Staci Zaretsky, Editor of Above the Law