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Subtle Sexism in Everyday Life” was the topic of a particularly revealing program at the January meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). “Sexism” is a term not often encountered in such polite company. The concept is familiar enough, but it generally implies some intentionally invidious action, and examples are increasingly difficult to come by. There is, however, a more subtle side of sexism: a cluster of social expectations and practices that, in effect if not intent, reinforce sex-based inequality. They shape the everyday lives of even well-educated and economically privileged women, including those in the legal profession. As program participants noted, we see women so frequently in positions of power that we lose track of where they are absent and the forces that might explain why. For example, women are a majority of the electorate, but hold only 15% of congressional seats. More than half of college graduates, but only about a quarter of full professors and a fifth of college presidents, are female. Women account for about a third of MBA classes, but only 2% of chief executive officers in Fortune 500 companies. About half of new lawyers are female, but less than a fifth of law firm partners, federal judges and law school deans. The gap widens for women of color, who account for only about 4% of congressional legislators, 3% of full professors, and 1% of corporate officers, law firm partners and general counsel. There are also large disparities in how women and men structure their nonworking lives. Women spend significantly more time than men do on their families and personal appearance. These disparities are generally attributed not to sexism but to personal preference. Yet what are too often missed or marginalized in discussions of women’s “different choices” are the costs that those choices carry, and the extent to which they are socially constructed and constrained. Sex-based stereotypes persist As the AALS panel emphasized, women’s opportunities are still limited by traditional sex-based stereotypes. The problem emerges clearly in experimental settings. Even when male and female performance is objectively equal, women’s competence is rated lower. R�sum�s are evaluated more favorably when they carry male rather than female names, and women receive lower ratings when they have authoritative styles that are common in leadership positions. What is assertive in a man seems abrasive in a woman, and female leaders risk seeming too feminine or not feminine enough. Women of color face obstacles on two fronts. In a recent survey by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, 44% of black female attorneys, compared with 4% of white male counterparts, reported being passed over for favorable assignments. Cognitive dissonance compounds the effects of unconscious biases. People are more likely to notice and recall information that confirms their prior assumptions than information that contradicts those assumptions. So, for example, when employers assume that a working mother is unlikely to be fully committed to her career, they more readily remember the times when she left early than the times when she stayed late. The home is no more an equal opportunity employer than is the workplace. Only in domestic matters, the presumptions of competence are reversed, which translates into unequal family burdens. In a survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy, four out of 10 high-achieving women felt that their husbands created more domestic work than they contributed. Double standards in appearance also carry a cost. Women spend several hours more each week than men on what Nora Ephron euphemistically titles “maintenance.” Nine out of 10 cosmetic surgery patients are female, and virtually every part of women’s body represents a target of opportunity for some product or procedure. Those who invest too much in their appearance are condemned as shallow, vain and narcissistic. Those who invest too little, or fall too far short, are less likely to be hired or promoted, or to date and marry, than their more attractive counterparts. The problems increase with women’s age. Older men can look distinguished; older women risk marginalization as “unattractive” or ridicule for efforts to pass as young. This double standard leaves women not only worried about how they look, but worried about worrying. According to Dove’s international “Real Beauty” survey, women are less satisfied with their appearance than every other important life dimension except financial success. Part of the reason is the ridicule, shame, guilt and discrimination that accompany significant deviation from unattainable ideals. There are no simple solutions. Rather, we need initiatives at the organizational, policy and community level that can address the subtle side of sexism. One obvious strategy is to increase awareness and accountability concerning gender bias. So, for example, decision-makers need to be held responsible for results in recruitment, retention and promotion of women, as well as in practices that influence those results, such as evaluation, assignments, mentoring and work/family accommodation. Organizations also need to be held accountable for their reinforcement of gender stereotypes and unattainable ideals. We need more organized protests of demeaning media portrayals and unrealistic standards of female appearance, as well as more prohibitions of discrimination based on physical attractiveness. The last four decades have brought us a long way in combating the most egregious forms of sex-based discrimination. The subtle forms define the challenge that remains. Deborah L. Rhode, an NLJ columnist, is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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