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March 13, 2013

Progress Stalled on Gender Equity, Says ABA President at International Women’s Day Event

Left to right: Laurel Bellows, Sital Kalantry and Kimberly Rhoten

Left to right: Laurel Bellows, Sital Kalantry and Kimberly Rhoten

“How far have we come?” was the question explored March 8 by a panel of women lawyers at an International Women’s Day event held at Baker and McKenzie in Chicago.

The resounding response from the conference room full of women lawyers was: “Not far enough!”

_ President Laurel Bellows, who keynoted the luncheon program, acknowledged that since the first International Women’s Day 100 years ago, women in the United States have made great progress toward equality, citing the right to vote and own property as examples. However, while U.S. women now have “rights our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers only dreamed about … Gender equality still eludes us.”

“Why are we, as women, still fighting to be treated as human beings and as leaders?” asked Bellows, who pointed out that women in the United States should not assume they are treated more equitably than their counterparts around the globe. “The fact is that the United States is in 91st place among countries when it comes to the percentage of women in their national legislature.”

The state of women in the legal profession is no different than in the political arena. Speaking to the audience of women lawyers, Bellows said, “No one questions your ability to practice law, as they did [stereotypically] many years ago. But women in the top 200 law firms are earning 86 percent of what their male counterparts get. And that’s already equalized for women who are working the same number of hours with the same responsibilities, on the same cases, bringing in the same amount of business.”

Shifting her focus to violence against women, Bellows applauded the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, saying that “we know that inequality and violence go hand in hand.”

Elaborating on the topic, Sital Kalantry, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, offered a global perspective and told attendees that violence against women is a worldwide problem. Focusing on India, Kalantry, also the founder of the International Human Rights Clinic, cited the recent gang-rape protests in the country. “Rape is not a new phenomenon in India,” Kalantry said. “Statistics say a woman is raped every 20 minutes there.”

Kalantry said that there is a growing view in India that the state is failing to protect its citizens in public spaces. “It is emblematic of the lack of the rule of law, and Indians have tied this lack of safety to the failure of democracy to function,” she said.

Attendees also heard the perspectives of younger lawyers, including University of Chicago 3L Kimberly Rhoten, along with Baker & McKenzie associates Francesca Richmond of London and Eva-Maria Worm of Munich.

In seeking solutions to the problems outlined at the event, the young lawyers and the audience were asked, “What one thing would help promote gender equity in the legal profession?”

Indicating the complexity of the problem, they provided several suggestions, including training to eliminate unconscious bias for all lawyers in law firms; onsite subsidized child care; elimination of the word “bitch” when referring to a woman who is zealous about an issue of importance; and doing something — no matter how small — every day, to contribute to the advancement of a woman in the legal profession.

The event was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, the Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women, the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Women’s Affinity Group of Baker & McKenzie.