University of Florida Levin College of Law Dean Laura Rosenbury is an expert on gender bias issues in the legal profession. The Harvard Law School graduate who majored in women’s studies as an undergraduate at Harvard-Radcliffe says overt gender bias in Florida’s law firms may be slowly improving, but implicit bias is still a problem. Last year, when a speaker introduced her as “vivacious,” she used it as a teaching moment, citing it as an example of a well-intentioned comment that demonstrated implicit gender bias, as the word would not have been used to introduce a man.
Rosenbury talked to The Daily Business Review about the state of gender bias in the legal system. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Is UF’s law school addressing the issue of gender bias?
Law schools have an obligation to engage in ongoing efforts to address bias in the legal profession or at least prepare our students for how to respond to it either on behalf of themselves, or on behalf of their client. We have a first-year introduction to lawyering course and a unit in that class is on implicit bias, examining how bias operates on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, region, all cultural spheres. We want our students to be able to identify implicit bias and to respond to it, particularly because their clients might often be hurt by such bias. We need them to be able to respond effectively if they are going to zealously advocate for their client. It’s an attempt to introduce students to the norms of the legal profession and what will be expected of them by their employers, law firm partners, as well as judges.
I will be teaching a law and leadership course this spring as an elective about a host of leadership issues. Some of those issues will involve our perceptions of leaders, how our perceptions of male leaders differ from our perceptions of female leaders and how our perceptions may vary on the basis of race and age.
How should lawyers respond to perceived gender bias?
When you are representing a client, it always has to be in the client’s best interest. When it is a more generalized matter, I think there are a lot of different ways to respond and there are differences of opinion about how to respond. We try to foster a dialogue on the subject and hope our students will continue. I don’t think there is any one way to respond to implicit bias and even established lawyers are struggling to figure out the best way.
How have gender issues in the legal industry evolved over time?
In the 1970s, it was common for female lawyers to be mistaken for secretaries or paralegals or assistants and you would have thought by now, 45 years later, those days would be behind us. They aren’t. Our notions of who the generic lawyer is are still very much caught up in a male model. Most people don’t even think about it: They hear the word lawyer and they tend to think of a certain middle age or older man, generally a white man. I don’t think that’s intentional for most people. It’s just the way people are socialized and the way our culture continues to portray people in certain positions. We are beginning to make changes, but if you look at the lawyers in leadership, whether it’s law firm partners, judges at certain levels, CEOs of companies, you will see that it is still male-dominated. Because positions of power still tend to be occupied by men, there is a subtle message that the best lawyers are men.
In what other ways is this differential treatment being addressed?
The Florida Bar Gender Bias Task Force recommended creating a subcommittee on women in the profession to constantly consider these issues and to initiate continuing legal education courses that address gender bias topics, including implicit bias, but also topics like the business case for gender inclusion, how to do gender-neutral hiring and gender-neutral evaluations. By offering the course as a CLE, lawyers get credit for attending sessions and hopefully get ideas that they can implement at their own firms. What I thought was really great was coming up with gender bias tool kits for firms that want their lawyers to think about implicit bias, find ways to identify it and interrupt it, as well as get best practices for parental leave, fair compensation and gender neutral hiring.