Editorial: The Florida Bar's smart effort to reduce gender bias

The Florida Bar is taking seriously the undeniable problem of gender bias in the legal profession.
The Florida Bar is taking seriously the undeniable problem of gender bias in the legal profession.
Published Jun. 30, 2017

The Florida Bar is taking seriously the undeniable problem of gender bias in the legal profession. Last year, the Bar learned from surveying its members just how pervasive discrimination remains against women, regardless of whether it is subtle or overt. Rather than shrinking from that disturbing reality, the Bar tackled the issue head-on and has released a substantive list of recommendations to improve the situation.

In 2015, the Bar sent out a survey on women in the legal profession to a random sample of 3,000 young female lawyers. Some 43 percent reported experiencing gender bias in their career, including harassment. They also cited a lack of advancement opportunities, unequal pay and a continuing struggle to balance work and home life. Those findings prompted Bar president William J. Schifino Jr. of Tampa to appoint a committee last year to study gender and diversity issues. The group sent out a larger survey to 6,000 lawyers (both male and female), sought advice and input from an array of experts on the legal profession and gender bias, and came up with recommendations that could help begin to change a culture where women are still called "sweetheart" in the courtroom.

The recommendations could apply broadly to most any professional organization or workplace but are smartly tailored to the Bar and its members. Among them:

• Creating continuing education courses for lawyers that address gender bias, the business case for gender inclusion and gender-neutral hiring;

• Distributing "toolkits" for employers to use to identify bias, establish best practices for maternity and paternity leave and adhere to fair and transparent hiring;

• Establishing a confidential reporting system for lawyers who are victims of gender-bias misconduct at work;

• Partnering with law firms to continue eliminating gender bias, and establishing a "blue ribbon" designation for firms committed to diversity.

Studying and tackling this problem was not just the right thing for the Bar to do. For the legal profession, it's also a matter of self-preservation. Nearly half of law students in the United States — 48.7 percent — are women. In Florida, women make up 38 percent of the state's lawyers. The proportion of managing partners in law firms who are women also is growing. For the profession to ignore bias and sexism that affect so many in its ranks would be foolish, self-inflicted damage.

The president of the Pinellas women lawyers association told the Times "there's sort of an assumption in today's day and age that gender bias is no longer an issue." While progress has been made — women now occupy 38 percent of Florida judgeships, up 10 percent in a decade but still far too low — the Bar's survey clearly shows gender bias is still very much an issue. Offering courses on understanding and fighting it, helping law firms make their workplaces more diverse and family-friendly, and creating a reporting system for rooting out misconduct are serious measures that can improve working conditions for women in the legal industry and serve as a model for other professions.