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12-point plan aims to eradicate bias

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12-point plan aims to eradicate bias

‘The report sets forth specific actions that the Bar can initiate to address gender inequalities’

Senior Editor

The Florida Bar Special Committee on Gender Bias’ final report, with a dozen recommendations, has been received by the Board of Governors.

President-elect Michael Higer, who chaired the panel, presented the findings at the board’s May 26 meeting in Key West. Higer announced that the committee will continue its work in the coming year under the leadership of President-elect Designate Michelle Suskauer.

Michael Higer “How many of you woke up this morning and said, ‘How am I going to disadvantage one of the many women lawyers in my life today?’” Higer asked the board. The answer is, he said, no one. Yet polls, studies, and statistics show that women lawyers continue to experience a variety of gender biases, from pay inequality to lack of advancement to harassment.

The committee, which included leaders from major law firms, judges who served on two previous Supreme Court commissions on gender bias, board members, Young Lawyer Division representatives, and others, spent hundreds of hours researching the issue, talking with experts, debating solutions, and preparing its report, Higer said.

“The report sets forth specific actions the Bar can initiate to address gender inequalities,” he said. “We did reach a consensus, and we came up with 12 recommendations that are in the report. Each of those recommendations provides for accountability, meaning who will be responsible for the timetable for the action contemplated to make sure it’s actually implemented.”

He introduced committee member Kristin Norse, a past president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, to present five of the committee’s recommendations.

Norse said the first recommendation is to have the Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee create the Women in the Profession Subcommittee to oversee gender-related issues, including carrying out the report’s recommendations.

The second is to create and promote online “toolkits” that firms can use to identify bias problems and solutions.

While studies show diversity and sensitivity training have limited results and may foster resentment rather than reconciliation, Norse said, “developing programs or task forces of men and women and enlisting their buy-in to tackle challenges related to diversity has a much greater impact. . . .

“The Florida Bar has the opportunity to make a unique impact by developing easy-to-use toolkits — or in some cases, disseminating already existing ones — to lawyers and law firms. Toolkits can address best practices for family leave, fair and transparent compensation practices, gender-neutral hiring, etc.”

Other actions include reviewing Bar rules to see if any additional rules or policies are needed and establishing a confidential means for lawyers to report instances of gender bias.

Kristin Norse “Not all misconduct merits public disciplinary action,” Norse said. “Permitting alternative methods for addressing less egregious misconduct may be helpful — perhaps through circuit professionalism panels or other means.”

The Bar should also create a “blue ribbon” designation for law firms and other legal employers that show a commitment to diversity, she said.

Higer said other recommendations from the committee include:

• Creating CLE courses addressing gender bias topics including implicit bias, why gender inclusion makes good business sense, gender- neutral hiring, and conflict avoidance and resolution.

• The Bar will seek better information on compensation and promotion for women lawyers, family leave, and leadership positions occupied by women lawyers, which can help measure progress of the report recommendations, among other things.

• The Bar will continue to recruit women for leadership positions in the Bar and encourage the same in voluntary bars.

• The Bar will look at law school activities that address gender bias and see what other state bars and private industries have done.

• The Bar will promote the advantages of maternity, paternity, and family leave.

• The Bar should continue the conversation with large and small firms and experts on eliminating gender bias “with a particular focus on issues impacted or influenced by law firm economics.”

• The Bar will search for services to add to its Member Benefits Program, such as emergency child care, that support family responsibilities of lawyers.

In addition to the formal recommendations, Higer announced he was reappointing the special committee for the coming year, with Suskauer as chair, and Norse and Gary Sasso, managing partner of the Carlton Fields law firm, as vice chairs.

“I’m asking for the continuation of their work. They’ve invested so much time, and they’ve gained so much knowledge that they can help all of those charged with following through on the report’s recommendations,” he said.

“We’ve come a long way from when there were few, if any women, in our profession. We’ve come a long way from when there were few, if any, women on our bench. And we’ve come a long way from when there were few, if any, women leaders in our Bar. But we obviously have a long way to go,” Higer said. “With the acceptance of this report and recommendations, I think we will take a giant leap forward in our journey to make sure none of the women in this room — and none of the women lawyers in our lives — are disadvantaged, and that we will level the playing field for women in our profession.

“I hope the recommendations will have a spillover effect not just in terms of gender bias but in terms of inequalities wherever they may exist.”

Higer recounted the reasons the special committee was set up and the work it did. The effort stemmed from a Young Lawyers Division survey of women lawyers in October 2015, which sampled more than 3,000 female YLD members and found that respondents felt held back by gender stereotypes, with 43 percent of respondents reporting experiencing gender bias during their legal career; 42 percent citing difficulties balancing work/life responsibilities; 32 percent reporting a lack of advancement opportunities, with 17 percent saying they had resigned due to the inability to advance; and 21 percent believing they were not being paid comparatively.

Last year, the Bar did a survey that queried 3,000 male and 3,000 female lawyers and found only 48 percent of female respondents believe they are paid comparably to men. Additionally, 59 percent of female respondents believe their male counterparts often attain more respect. (See story here for more results of that survey.)

Women now represent about half of all law school graduates and make up 36 percent of the profession nationally and 38 percent in Florida, Higer said. Yet they are underrepresented in the leadership positions of law firms and as general counsels for businesses. And they are paid about 90 percent the rate of men for the same work, and overall earn about 80 percent of what male lawyers make.

No one is immune from the discrepancies, Higer said. He reported going to the websites of his own law firm and the larger law firms of board members and found the percentage of women who are partners ranged from 16 to 25 percent.

“All of these studies, research, and statistics. . . show an indisputable gap in the numbers. The reasons for the gaps may be complex and some may look at all of the information with an eye toward marginalizing, rationalizing, or criticizing the information in some manner,” Higer said. “But the gaps themselves are well documented, and they pose a continued challenge for us — as individuals, for our firms, and for the judicial system.”

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