Written by: Nalani Gordon & Marc Hernandez
Published: March 2023
In 1987, Congress first declared March to be Women’s History Month as a way to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women. This recognition would be incomplete without acknowledging the contributions of women lawyers in particular. And while celebrating the trailblazing work of women in the law, we should also acknowledge the historical and current realities of our profession, so we can work toward what the American Bar Association refers to as a “more inclusive, just, and equitable profession” in the future.
A century and three years ago, women had no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. The eventual passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was far from preordained. It was the result of decades-long relentless work of countless individuals including suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the many others who supported them, marched with them, and demanded change.
In 1970, women comprised only 3 percent of the legal profession. A decade later, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, becoming the first female associate justice on the high court. However, a decade after that, in 1990, the Florida Supreme Court’s Gender Bias Study Commission concluded that “discrimination based solely on one’s gender was a reality that permeates Florida’s legal system.”
Fortunately, in the ensuing years the number of women serving as U.S. Supreme Court justices has increased. At present, that number is four, but four is a minority. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneering Supreme Court justice and champion for women’s rights, famously once said that there would be enough women on the Supreme Court “when there are nine.” Justice Ginsburg acknowledged that some were shocked by this statement, but as she explained, “there’[s] been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
Currently, the number of women in the legal profession is closer to 38 percent according to the Florida Bar. Yet, this is far from an accomplishment given that women make up 50 percent or more of first-year law students, indicating that many women are being forced out of the profession or choosing to leave. Moreover, the women who remain in the profession are not proportionately represented as partners in law firms, judges, or in other top-level positions like deans of law schools. In Florida Bar surveys, women lawyers also have reported that they continue to be adversely and uniquely affected by gender stereotypes, harassment, unequal pay, and work-life balance issues. As Justice O’Connor recognized:
Despite the encouraging and wonderful gains and the changes for women which have occurred in my lifetime, there is still room to advance and to promote correction of the remaining deficiencies and imbalances.
In other words, it is far too early to declare victory in the struggle to eliminate bias against women lawyers and unjust barriers to their entry in the legal profession. We have work to do.
As a bar and a profession, we have a number of opportunities to promote the advancement of women lawyers.
One avenue of support and empowerment is available through voluntary bar associations and civic organizations like the Florida Association for Women Lawyers (FAWL). FAWL has a long track record of working toward gender equality in the legal profession and the community as a whole. The association also plays an instrumental role in promoting the leadership of women lawyers by encouraging them to join the judiciary, committees in the Florida Bar, and executive boards for non-profit organizations. Similarly, the Sheree Davis Cunningham Black Women Lawyers Association, which was recently founded in 2021 by three stellar attorneys from our community, focuses on empowering and supporting black women in the legal profession. This organization will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the women lawyers in Palm Beach County and beyond.
In addition to participating in voluntary bar associations, attorneys have the responsibility on an individual, organizational, and societal level, to work toward a “more inclusive, just, and equitable profession.” As individuals, we can mentor, support, and invest in women lawyers. All of this can be done without a formalized structure and without significant effort. As members of organizations and society, we can educate others regarding the value of representation, ensure that women are heard, and give women the same opportunities that are available to others. The key is speaking up and acting because if we wait for someone else to do so then no one will.
The responsibility for creating a more equitable legal profession—a profession that demands equality under law—lies with us. And if we faithfully discharge our responsibility, we can take pride in the fact that we have not only honored the work of past pioneers but also the work of those who still walk among us.
Nalani Gordon is an associate at Gunster. Her main areas of practice are employment law, Title IX, and business litigation. Marc Hernandez is a board-certified appellate attorney at Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath, focusing on personal injury, medical malpractice, and products liability cases.