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Panel works to change attitudes about gender and diversity issues

Senior Editor Regular News

Panel works to change attitudes about gender and diversity issues

‘If we are going to be making a change, this is the time to do it’

Senior Editor

The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on Gender Bias and Diversity is shifting to oversight as a subcommittee gets down to the nitty gritty of implementing a 12-point action plan.

Michelle Suskauer Committee chair and Bar President-elect Michelle Suskauer said that with so much attention focused on the “#MeToo,” and “#TimesUp,” movements, the Bar couldn’t have chosen a more auspicious time to launch the next phase.

“This is the time when there is a national conversation, a conversation that is so pervasive,” Suskauer said. “If we are going to be making a change, this is the time to do it.”

The assignment falls to the Subcommittee on Gender Equality, a division of the Bar’s long-standing Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The Gender Bias committee capped extensive research and surveys of thousands of attorneys with a comprehensive report issued in June. Unlike typical study commissions, where progressive and well-meaning proposals are sent to die, the Bar effort generated a concrete list of deliverables and makes various Bar sections and officials responsible for carrying them out.

The recommendations include initiating continuing legal education courses; identifying “gender bias” toolkits; developing confidential ways to report gender bias; creating baseline reporting standards for compensation and promotion to make progress measurable profession-wide; and creating a blue-ribbon program to encourage and reward firms that adopt best practices.

The report even recommends studying a formal, anti-gender bias rule. But Kristin Norse, a committee co-chair, said an initial review showed that existing rules are so comprehensive, a change may not be necessary.

Kristin Norse Norse said the recommendations are designed for impact.

“What we are looking at are comprehensive approaches, something that will really move the needle,” she said.

The full Gender Bias and Diversity Committee met jointly with the Gender Equality Subcommittee in late January to divide the work and assess progress. Subcommittee working groups had already begun various tasks, including reviewing professional education programs in New York and five other states.

Suskauer said she’s satisfied the work is on track and will ultimately make a difference.

“I think it’s not just looking at each of these individually, but taking them altogether,” she said. “I am very encouraged by the progress of the implementation committee. They hit the ground running with calendars and they have been, from the beginning, hard at work.”

Suskauer, and fellow committee members Fentrice Driskell of Tampa and Paul SanGiovanni of Orlando will oversee much of the implementation.

Driskell is impressed with the number of workgroups that had to be assigned to tackle such a major effort.

“The Bar really is indebted to the leaders of these workgroups and their members because they are, step-by-step, doing the hard work that it takes to lift something this big off the ground,” Driskell said. “Some of it is about making sure that we’re holding the Bar accountable for promoting women within the leadership ranks. Other pieces are about actual innovation in showing the way to best practices. ”

SanGiovanni said the first deadline will fall at the end of the Bar’s fiscal year in June. That’s when the first toolkit and blue-ribbon standards will be rolled out. By June, the subcommittee also hopes to unveil a page of The Florida Bar website dedicated to gender equality and women in the profession. Programs and solutions will be released in phases for maximum impact, SanGiovanni said.

“We don’t want to drop all of the deliverables on the Bar and say we’re done and walk away from it,” he said. “That gives our committee the time to really focus, to make sure what we’re rolling out is a quality issue that addresses the concerns that the special committee identified.”

SanGiovanni acknowledges that at first, he had no idea how pervasive the problem is. Now that he knows what to look for, he sees examples all the time.

“Things like, women in meetings or hearings getting cut off. Or women in a group setting not being given the same weight when the same idea is proposed by a man in the meeting,” SanGiovanni said. “It’s disturbing, but at the same time, it’s encouraging that we’re starting to recognize it and that there are some affirmative things you can do to start to straighten that out.”

Driskell agrees. She says much of the battle has to do with awareness.

“That’s what’s so encouraging about implicit bias research. Once a person is capable of identifying their biases, then you can start the process of de-biasing. And that comes through awareness, it comes through putting yourself in situations with diverse people, situations that push you beyond your comfort zone, and really help you to reestablish new ways of thinking that are not based on stereotypes.”

In that sense, the Bar’s effort is already paying off, SanGiovanni says. He points to the committee’s 2017 survey showing one in seven women lawyers have experienced gender bias in the last three years; and a 2015 survey by the Young Lawyer’s Division in which 43 percent of women lawyers in Florida reported experiencing gender bias in the profession.

“Women now have studies that acknowledge in black and white what they know and what they have been talking about,” SanGiovanni said. “That, in and of itself, empowers them to address the issue, either as an individual or as a group. And hopefully it gives women in the profession the confidence to know that The Florida Bar has their back.”

Suskauer remains optimistic, but she acknowledges attitudes can be hard to change.

While she was still campaigning for Bar president last year, Suskauer was called “babe” in one courtroom and mistaken for a court reporter in another. When she assumes the title this summer, Suskauer says she won’t be able to forget that she is only the sixth women president in Bar history.

“Out of the six women who will be president, half of us have had contested elections, and contested elections in The Florida Bar are pretty rare,” Suskauer said. “When I go around the state speaking to different groups, I can’t find women who haven’t had a personal experience with either gender bias or harassment in their careers or personal lives.”

That’s not to deny the progress that’s been made, Suskauer said.

The latest figures show that 38 percent of Florida Bar members are women, up from 27 percent in 2000. Seventeen of the Bar’s 52-member governing board are women. And 38 percent of Florida judges, including Supreme Court, appellate, and trial courts, are women.

“I think that we are absolutely headed in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Suskauer said. “I don’t want to be having this conversation 10 years from now. I want to look back 10 years from now and laugh and say, ‘I can’t believe we were talking about gender bias.’”

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