Emma Staffaroni is a first-year Master’s candidate in SLC’s Women’s History program. A ruthless feminist, she slays haters with her pen and then eats them for dinner, covered in cheese. She also enjoys basset hounds, trains, and red wine.
Behold, a great irony: sexism in the profession of justice. Re/Visionist asked a few women to share their stories of experiencing sexism within the legal profession. The anonymous women below have given their testimonies in order to raise consciousness about the complex (but straightforward) ways sexism can pervade the legal workplace.
I worked in a law firm in Manhattan dedicated to women’s rights in employment. However, it was run by two men – that’s right – two men. All interns, administrative assistants, office managers, and attorneys at the firm were women. Although there were many women working at the law firm, the two head lawyers never allowed any of the hard-working female attorneys to be a partner in the firm. They also treated their employees poorly – sometimes yelling and speaking condescendingly to the females. One of the attorneys started a blog and wanted those who contributed to use pictures of themselves at the beginning of each post. One intern felt compelled to participate but albeit uncomfortable about providing a photo because she felt her writing should stand alone. When she gave a photo of herself, he sent it back and requested a close up of her face because the photo was taken of her from “too far away.”
After about a year, I left my position as an administrative assistant after an argument between the head attorney and me about my disappointment in him not fulfilling in what he alleged to be. He purported to be a feminist attorney trying to help women, but he treated his employees and his clients terribly and underneath his feminist mask he was just a patriarchal male attorney in lower Manhattan.
When I worked at the firm there was (and still is) a dress code that was especially enforced for us underlings. The girls always got lectured if a skirt or pants were too tight, whereas the boys could pretty much do whatever they wanted. They would look all wrinkled and messy, and they never got chastised. Also tasks were delegated to us [based on gender]: girls were generally asked to do most of the filing (unless there was a huge amount and then the boys would help). Guys did more of the physical or technological stuff. Also some of our fellow couriers/service techs who were male would just expect us to do certain tasks, like copy jobs.
We were at trial in New Jersey. All of the attorneys and litigation support staff stay in the same hotel. We had a holiday weekend and a few of the attorneys and staff went to the hotel bar for some drinks and appetizers. Everyone had a little bit too much to drink, and on our way up the elevator back to our rooms, the lead attorney on our case grabbed my ass walking out of the elevator.
After graduating from college I decided to paralegal at a Manhattan law firm hoping to reach a decision on whether or not I wanted to attend law school. I found it interesting that a vast majority of the paralegals at my firm were women in their early-twenties who had recently graduated from top colleges. All of the attorneys, except one, were men. I once asked the head unit attorney why he only hired women and he answered that women were smarter and “more able” to get the job done correctly and efficiently. There is no doubt in my mind that women are smarter (kidding), but I took this to mean that women are non-threatening, especially when it came to prepping for court motions or depositions, and it made him feel superior.
During my first year at the firm I started to notice that younger women who dressed in tighter, shorter, more provocative clothing received bigger cases and more important tasks within the office. This translated into these paralegals traveling with attorneys to depositions and motion proceedings. Women were clearly not valued for their mind or their talents alone, but rather for their bodies and how they looked.
After rebelling against this stereotype for about a year and not receiving anything of great importance in terms of work, I realized that in order to get the leading cases or recommendations that I needed for school, or even just to have attorneys know who I was, I needed to step it up with my outfit choices and start taking pride in my appearance. I basically realized that I would need to work within this patriarchical system – something that I was taught NOT to do in my past Feminist Political Theory classes – to get what I needed out of my stint at the law firm.
As I started to confidently strut the hallways wearing more shoulder-baring tops, shorter and tighter skirts, and heels (ALWAYS heels- never flats), I was noticed by more attorneys in the office. Not long after I was placed on trial team and given more important and serious work to do. I was given more opportunities to travel with different attorneys and work on different cases. Despite the fact that I knew using my sexuality or gender to get ahead was ultimately wrong and against my beliefs, I figured I was only staying at this male-centric law firm for a couple years I would try to get what I needed out of this position. My lesson from this job is that no matter how many women are graduating from law school these days, the legal field is still very male dominated and misogynistic. Women are not valued for their minds alone, but most importantly, their looks. My intellectual capabilities were secondary to my attractiveness and appearance.
Sometimes less really is more. On my first day of observations as a legal intern I had the opportunity to view a custody case in Family Court. Before the proceedings, the Judge asked me to introduce myself and describe my legal interests. At recess, opposing counsel approached and congratulated me, seemingly intrigued by my interests. After uncomfortably staring in silence when every facet of Small Talk was exhausted, he finally commented, “I hope to see more of you… and even less of your skirt.” That single sentence possessed more power than he could have envisioned. In several words, it undermined my past, present and future abilities. More importantly, it solidified my decision to pursue law.
We invite you to share your stories below in our comments. Let women know that they are not dealing with this alone.