Almost half of American law students are women, but according to the findings of the 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, female law students are less likely than their male counterparts to speak up and ask questions during in-class discussions. The Survey also stated that female law students are more likely to be motivated by the fear of failing than their male classmates. It was also recently revealed that women argue only 15 percent of the cases before the Supreme Court.
In light of all of this information, one question remains: why are women silencing themselves in the study and practice of law?
Are women voluntarily opting out?
Lisa Blatt currently holds the women’s record for the most arguments before the Supreme Court. When asked about the gender gap in Supreme Court appearances, Blatt stated that while she believes women can argue as well as men, women seem less likely to enjoy “verbal jousting.” She suggested that many women might be “horrified,” and thus unable to engage in verbal combat.
Patricia Millett, another woman who has argued multiple times before the Supreme Court, was concerned that women were actively opting out of career opportunities which would allow them to argue before the Supreme Court.
Women in law are not wimps. Not the ones that I know. Even in law school, they struck me as outspoken, articulate, and, not infrequently, argumentative. I don’t recall too many shrinking violets back then, and I don’t see many now.
Why, then, are these outspoken, articulate, and argumentative women’s voices not being heard? Why are women so “horrified” about speaking out?
You can hear our voices if you choose to listen
Nicole Black, former Lawyerist contributor and author of Women Lawyers—Back on Track, a blog for women attorneys, suggested that cultural norms may have something to do with it. When I asked her for more information, she pointed me to one of her prior blog posts, which noted that in our society:
[A] desirable trait for women is to be soft spoken and gentle. [F]rom a young age, [we] learn that our culture expects certain things from girls—not the least of which is playing a quietly supportive background role while the boys handle the front end of things.
Sure, as we grow and learn, we make our own decisions about how we choose to carry ourselves in the world, but the lessons learned at a young age are not easily forgotten or ignored.
Jessie Kornberg, the Executive Director of Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the success of women in law school and the legal profession, informed me that she thought women in the law are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to speaking out.
When women speak assertively, they are written off as unattractively aggressive. When women speak up in softer, more “feminine” tones, their comments don’t register with professors or peers. Study after study demonstrates that a man can repeat a woman’s argument directly after her and receive all the credit from listeners for making it. Either way you’re just not being listened to—of course women “opt-out” of that equation.
Women lawyers have to make a difficult decision
It seems like we live in a world where women lawyers who refuse to indulge gender stereotypes are labeled as “bitches,” while the women lawyers who play to gender norms are taken advantage of and considered weaker in all respects. Apparently, fear of failure is a motivating factor for women lawyers, and the disparity between how men and women are treated in the study and practice of law likely exacerbates that fear. This being the case, is there really any doubt as to why some women lawyers have been silencing themselves?
All I know is that in this damned if you do, damned if you don’t world, I’d rather be a “bitch.” Silence isn’t always golden, especially when you want to be successful. Is that the right choice? I don’t know, and only time will tell. What I do know is that I have a lot to say, and that I want to be heard—I think that I’ve earned it. We all have, but the question is whether women lawyers are willing to face adversity to reap the rewards.