by Jaclyn A. Goldstein
When Mayanne Downs, the current president and managing director of Gray Robinson, began her first job as a law clerk, she was astounded to find out that her firm would be holding a wet T-shirt contest for its law clerks. This was the culture of being a woman in the legal profession in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the legal profession has only come so far since then.
On Tuesday, October 25, the Law Association for Women held a panel discussion, Gender Bias and the Glass Ceiling, during which students had the opportunity to hear from esteemed professionals in the legal community.
The panelists included Mayanne Downs; Judge James Colaw of the Eighth Judicial Circuit; Dean Rachel Inman, associate dean for students at Levin College of Law; Stephanie Marchman, senior assistant city attorney for the City of Gainesville and president of the Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association; and Kathleen Fox, local family law practitioner.
The discussion revealed aspects of gender bias entrenched in the legal profession extending to all genders.
While men want to be involved in family life, firm culture makes it difficult to do so. For instance, Marchman reported that men rarely opt to take the parental leave they are federally entitled to because they feel as though they will be judged for doing so. On the other hand, a male associate in her firm repeatedly referred to Marchman as “Mother Marchman” after she gave birth, because it caused a three-week delay for a case they had been working on. Similarly, Marchman stated that she and other female associates in her firm were referred to as “Charlie’s Angels.”
The bias does not end with attorneys. Judges and clients experience and are a part of it too.
In fact, Downs recounted a time when a judge instructed a female defendant to turn around so he could “see her behind.” Additionally, Fox explained that a judge may be more biased toward a male attorney or more biased toward a female one.
Unfortunately, women likewise discriminate against other women, as Judge Colaw pointed out.
When asked how to combat such injustice, the panelists had a variety of responses. Dean Inman’s advice was humor.
“I know I look too young to be a dean” is her go-to response when someone appears shocked to see a dean who is not only a woman, but also an African-American.
Fox echoed this with her instructions to deflect everything with humor. Downs reminded the audience that “we teach people the way we want to be treated. Don’t accept [bias] and treat everyone in the process fairly and with professionalism.”
Marchman instructed the audience to be aware of your own biases and make informed decisions rather than immediately trusting your gut. Colaw cautioned that not everyone’s attitude changes, but discussion helps.
The one thing all five panelists agreed on? Change is coming, and our generation will be the one to bring it.