The New York State Bar Association will be hosting a symposium [PDF] on January 26 to address specific problems women face in the legal profession. At this conference, two panels will discuss the issues facing female lawyers in a “changing legal market where competition is tougher and expectations are higher.”
The unfortunate execution of a conference intended to genuinely help women has triggered significant controversy. The panels, “What’s Our Problem: Current Issues Facing Women” and “Their Point of View: Tips From the Other Side,” focus on the perceived weaknesses of all women in the law. And in fact, the second panel specifically asks men to opine on the strengths and weaknesses of women’s legal skills and work, while women are apparently expected to genuflect to their “distinguished” male colleagues in order to address their specific womanly challenges.
Above the Law summarizes the problem with the idea of asking men to advise women on how to become better women lawyers:
As for the whole symposium: let’s all get together and discuss our problems in the first panel, and then we can bring in distinguished gentlemen to tell us how to fix them. After all, every woman must have the same strengths and weaknesses. You almost expect them to add how to dress to the list of things the gentlemen will be talking about.
There are many challenges facing women in the legal profession that should be addressed, but shame on the New York Bar Association for approaching them from such a sexist perspective. Feministe addressed the poorly framed conference objective by asking if “[female lawyers] would face fewer challenges if it wasn’t always assumed that we’re the ones with the problem.”
And while the conference organizers were no doubt genuine in their intention of recognizing the challenges women face in the workplace and working to overcome them, the chauvinistic execution of the New York State Bar Association’s conference fails to express that many “problems” affecting women also affect men in the profession. Balancing work and family and advancing in the profession have come to be universal challenges in a difficult and time-consuming career path, and a collaborative effort at addressing those issues would be a more effective strategy.