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Gender on the agenda

Senior Editor Regular News

As soon as Michael Higer walked into the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion at the Bar’s Annual Convention, Chair Brittany Maxey-Fisher gave him a shout out for wearing the “Inclusion” lapel pin in his portrait on the cover of the Journal.

The huge committee, representing a full spectrum of diverse lawyers, broke into applause.

Quote Higer, who was sworn in as the new Bar president the following day on June 23, told the group that the pin was “kind of cockeyed” on the lapel of his blue suit in the original photo, so he asked the photographer to manipulate the pin upright in the final version for publication.

That’s how important diversity and inclusion is to Higer, who chaired The Florida Bar Special Committee on Gender Bias created by immediate Past President Bill Schifino.

Higer said he came to do a little “cheerleading” about the report that was received by the Board of Governors on May 26. The first recommendation is that the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion will create a subcommittee, called Gender Equality, to oversee implementation efforts of half of the 12 recommendations (see stories in June 15 Bar News.)

The Gender Equality Subcommittee held its first 45-minute Zoom conference call on July 18, with Paul SanGiovanni and Fentrice Driskell presiding. Both serve on the Special Committee on Gender Bias/Diversity, and are also vice chairs of the Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

They gave an overview of how they will expect the Gender Equality Subcommittee to work, culminating in SanGiovanni giving a report to the Board of Governors in May 2018.

“I am very excited to work with Fentrice on this committee,” SanGiovanni said during the July 18 conference call.

“If you read those materials, and you look at the things we looked at, as we put that report together, we have a lot of work to do to make the practice of law equal for women in the profession,” he said.

“And key to that is bringing other stakeholders into the fold to understand how important it is, to understand that diversity is not an add-on; it’s not something you do once you get everything straightened out.

“Diversity is a solution,” SanGiovanni continued. “And if you are a bunch of guys in a room, and you haven’t come up with a solution, it’s because you’ve got a bunch of guys in the room.

“You have to have a diverse population of thinkers and solution-makers to ultimately come up with solutions that will help your firm to survive.”

In Driskell’s remarks July 18, she asked subcommittee members to look at their gender bias work in the context of being under the umbrella of the entire Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

“When you think about the mission of the overall diversity committee, it is to increase diversity, to make sure our Bar reflects what our state looks like in terms of demographics, whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ [or persons with disabilities].

“We really want to have a diverse profession. Our particular subcommittee is going to focus on that gender piece. We want to do it in such a way that the rising tide will lift all boats, so that our efforts will give lift to diversity and inclusion efforts throughout the Bar, in respect to those other demographics.

“We also want to make sure that our committee is mindful of the intersectionalities, that women also come in all different sorts of races and ethnicities and LBGTQ, and may have other issues,” Driskell said.

“We really want to take this opportunity, while The Florida Bar is spotlighting this issue, to do a great job and try to give lift to diversity and inclusion overall.”

Subcommittee member Craig Leen, Coral Gables city attorney who supported the proposed parental leave continuance rule change, said it’s important the Gender Equality Subcommittee expand its focus beyond private law firms. He wants to include government law offices, including state attorneys, public defenders, and law clerks for judges.

“A lot of attorneys start their careers in those offices,” Leen said. “I think their initial interactions with judges and those sorts of government leaders and how they are treated, particularly in the area of gender equality, I think is very formative. Often, it has been my experience that governments are behind the times.”

“Those are excellent points,” Driskell responded.

At the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion meeting at the Annual Convention, Higer described the original gender bias committee of 16 as “a good diverse group of men and women who were very engaged in the conversation about gender inequality” that turned out to be almost a year-long discussion. Those original committee members — including managing partners of three of the largest law firms in Florida — agreed to remain in place as the implementation process continues.

Bar President-elect Michelle Suskauer is the new chair of the original Florida Bar Special Committee on Gender Bias.

“I think what distinguished us from what other groups had done in the past is we started out with the assumption that gender inequality exists,” Higer said, noting statistics from the Bar’s two surveys (one in 2015 by the Young Lawyers Division, followed by a broader survey of men and women Bar members in 2016).

After reaching out to “thought leaders” — educators, professors, and deans — the committee worked on how best to address the issues and went through five iterations of the report that came up with a dozen recommendations.

“Those are the 12 recommendations that we will take up this year,” Higer said. “And I’m looking at folks right now who are going to be the ones who are going to take up those recommendations.”

Higer said they have put in place a structure to make sure the report doesn’t just sit on a shelf, but that the recommendations are carried out in the real world of Florida’s law offices.

Acknowledging the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion represents a lot of different interests, Higer said the “common thread is gender.”

“Female lawyers make up 38 percent of our Bar. That’s far greater than any other interest group that serves in this committee,” Higer said.

“It’s in our collective interest to make this committee succeed,” Higer said, noting that the gender inequality issues are “20 times worse for women of color.”

“We need to row the boat together,” Higer said. “If we don’t, we will do a disservice. So I hope this committee, as a whole, will get behind the subcommittee…and make this, if not the most important initiative of your year, one of the most important initiatives.

“Frankly, I would say it is the most important issue, because I think ultimately it will be the showcase, it will be the gold star, and for years going forward raising up all the other interests this committee serves to protect and promote.”

After Higer left the room, Driskell reiterated the 12 recommendations, of which the Gender Equality Subcommittee is responsible for carrying out six of, and said, “I believe we can get it done. One of the things we have learned about implicit basis. . . it is malleable. You can actually diminish it. That’s one of the things we’ll be working on in the subcommittee: How can we equip lawyers to overcome implicit bias?”

SanGiovonni said he was excited to see Bar leadership — not only Higer, but Schifino; Suskauer; Board of Governors member John Stewart and 13th Circuit Judge Claudia Isom, who both served on the Special Committee on Gender Bias; and newly hired Bar Executive Director Josh Doyle — stand together at the meeting of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to show support for the continuing gender bias initiative.

“One of the things that came out of the report,” SanGiovanni said, “is ‘do something! Stop talking about it!’”

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