American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass has presented findings from a series of studies conducted this year aimed at pinpointing gender discrimination and disparities in law firms.
The ABA’s longitudinal study revealed that despite today’s high number of female law school graduates and associates, only 25 percent of women are likely to remain in the profession by age 50. Ultimately, Bass wants to see more long-term retention and advancement of women in law.
What’s more, according to a 2017 Florida Bar study, half of female lawyers report experiencing sexual harassment at work.
The ABA’s research also uncovered a double standard for male and female parents working at law firms. New mothers tend to be penalized in pay and promotions as employers assume they’ll be less committed, while fathers often get raises on the assumption their motivation will increase with a family to provide for.
In making mental leaps like these, employers demonstrate implicit bias. And though Bass considers implicit bias to be a societal issue, she worries about the specific impact on the legal profession.
“Those biases prevent us from being as objective as we would like to be when it comes time to make decisions of evaluations, compensation and elevation,” Bass said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
She encourages every lawyer to take Harvard’s implicit bias test, to confidentially assess their bias based on a range of factors including gender, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.
“It’s critically important to identify which ones we have because it will make our decision-making better going forward,” said Bass, co-president of global law firm Greenberg Traurig.
If legal professionals can discover where their biases lie, they’ll ultimately be able to decouple their preconceived ideas of what people should act and look like.
“You need to say, ‘Wow, that 260-pound guy on a Harley, he actually likes classical music and has a Ph.D.,’ ” Bass said during a presentation last week at the annual Florida Bar convention in Orlando.
She has already seen a change in attitude since taking office last August. More recently, she’s noticed a shift in men’s attitudes toward the #MeToo movement.
“ A year ago when I spoke to managing partners about issues like differentials in compensation or implicit bias or sexual harassment within their firms, many of them would simply glaze over and say they don’t know anything about that, it doesn’t happen in their firms.”
Now, Bass says there’s a different reaction. Though many managing partners tell Bass they still don’t believe there’s gender inequality in their firms, they want to be sure.
“They’re taking affirmative steps to ensure that if it is, they learn about it and they affirmatively exercise a management effort to ensure that it stops,” she said.
One strategy firms are implementing to prevent sexual harassment is excluding alcohol from work events.
“What we know from a lot of these studies that we’re reading is that people who understand where the line is and are accustomed to acting appropriately have that third drink, and suddenly that inhibition disappears and they act inappropriately,” Bass told the bar group.
The ABA issued new guidelines this year offering recommendations and resources for tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. “Zero Tolerance” was released in March by the ABA Commission on Women as an update to an earlier manual on sexual harassment.
The ABA also issued a policy resolution in February encouraging employees in the legal profession ”to adopt and enforce policies and procedures that prohibit, prevent and promptly redress harassment and retaliation based on sex (including gender, gender identity and sexual orientation) and the intersection of sex and other protected classes.”
Bass will pass the torch to a new ABA president in August, but before then she’ll be proposing resolutions for consideration by the ABA’s House of Delegates. One will consider not requiring mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims in the legal community.
There may also be a resolution asking law firms to analyze compensation disparities at their law firms.