IS THERE A DISPARITY IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION?

August 9, 2016

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August 2016
Issue 24

“Haves and Have Nots”

Like Professional women around the globe, women in the Bahamas have come a long way since the suffrage movement and gaining the right to vote. In decades gone by, societal norms instructed and encouraged men to devalue the contributions of women. In today’s globalized environment however, individual women have assumed roles of leadership alongside of, and ahead of their male counterparts and as a collective, women have continued to play significant roles from medicine, politics and yes even the once exclusively male legal fraternity.

Once known as the Elite Boys Club, the legal profession in the Bahamas, in its early years reflected the attitudes of that era. A time when men dominated the workforce and women were relegated to supporting roles only. With the passage of time though, the legal profession began to evolve. The first Bahamian woman was called to the Bahamas Bar in 1953, and to date there have been approximately 615 women called to the profession. As could be expected though, that evolution has not been without its share of growing pains. Veteran female attorneys have long recounted stories of their experiences after being called to the Bar. In a time not too long ago, female attorneys were denied employment by high profile firms who at the time, hired only men and those accepted to certain firms found themselves treated very differently. Many of them were given less work than their male counterparts, and were required to work doubly hard for the same level of recognition. While one might be hard pressed to find such blatant disparities in a 21st century Bahamas, it remains an indisputable fact that women face professional challenges which men simply do not; many of which are born out of the archaic gender roles which dictate that the role of women should be confined to the home and that in all matters women should take a secondary role to men.

Today, the legal world is filled with unique challenges and subtle disparities in the development of the profession between men and women. Seen as the “weaker vessel” as defined in biblical teachings, women attorneys have long been considered less aggressive, less tough and therefore, inferior advocates. In the workplace, women are frequently subjected to subtle discrimination which can often lead them to question themselves and their abilities. Qualified women may be passed over for promotions because they became pregnant or because they might become pregnant, as a result jobs are offered to a less qualified male attorney simply because he is male. In addition to this biological discrimination, women; particularly married women with children are also deemed less loyal to the organization with commitments which may at times be deemed more important than the job.

Still, the legal profession worldwide is filled with women who are not only loyal to the firms that they are affiliated but they put in more billable hours than their male counterparts and even make more money for their respective organizations – even with family obligations. Women in the legal profession give 110% dedication to their work and to their clients. They are generally more productive and more organized than their male counterparts, and yet, the imbalances exist.

As a result of those imbalances, the numbers of women rising to position of leadership and partnership in the legal profession tend to fall behind that of male associates. Women also do not fill the ranks of the judiciary as often as men nor are they recognized for their accomplishments to jurisprudence. Take for instance, the many contributions of impressive women such as retired Justice Jeanne Thompson and Beryl Andre Williams. Or even more significant the work of Patricia Cole Cozzi, the first female Attorney to the legal profession and her contribution in the case law regarding a defense of diminished responsibility in a most precedent setting manslaughter case in the Bahamas.

A newer and equally significant challenge facing female attorneys is the lack of mentorship. In recent years, young female attorneys have entered an “every woman for herself” environment. While female attorneys have seemingly broken through the glass ceiling and other invisible barriers set by men, however they are then confronted by biases from fellow female attorneys which have also prevented women from climbing the ranks. Gone are the days when older women in the profession would guide and mentor the young women. Senior women in the profession have erred by failing to properly guide the younger women by showing them the correct way to appear before a Judge in Court, the correct way to address a senior member of the profession and the correct way to work diligently in presenting legal arguments to the Court.

Conversely, younger male counter-parts are cloaked and mentored by senior men in the profession. It would seem that not only are younger women in the profession forced to combat the “glass ceiling” phenomena but also the “double blade” shown by both their male counter parts and senior women in the profession. It is these new challenges, most of all, which separate women as a whole. Unfortunately, young women to the profession are made to learn from the outset, by default, that they are more likely to be judged by their looks and how they dress rather than their ability to win a case. Senior women within the profession have taken to using the same oppressive tactics previously used on them to sow discord among a younger crop of attorneys. Whatever the reason for this course of action, it is imperative that both younger and senior women in the legal profession work together and exist as one, if we aim to eradicate this stigma of gender bias in the law.

If we as women want to be viewed as equal to our male counter-parts, we must first treat each other as equal. How do we expect to be treated with respect, when we as women do not treat each other with respect? It begins with us, before we can expect others to extend or to remove the disparity that plagues the profession; otherwise, there will always be the Haves and the Have Nots”.

By Nerissa Greene (Partner)Nerissa Greene of Halsbury Chambers


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