Women in the Law

‘Maternal Wall,’ Sex Bias Block Advancement for Women Lawyers, Utah Study Finds

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A new survey finds a “startling amount” of sexual harassment and sex discrimination occurs in Utah law firms.

The gender bias has a “consistent, negative impact on the advancement of female attorneys” in Utah law firms, according to an executive summary (PDF) of the survey by the Women Lawyers of Utah. All members of the Utah State Bar admitted between 1985 and 2005 were surveyed. Among the results:

• About 10 percent of women in Utah law firms said they had been sexually harassed at work, compared to 1 percent of male lawyers who reported any kind of harassment. Several survey respondents said they left law firm jobs because of sexual harassment.

• About 10 percent of women in law firms reported unfair treatment that rose to the level of discrimination, according to the report (PDF). Overall, 23 percent of the women said they had been treated unfairly, including those who believed it was discrimination, compared to 16 percent of male respondents who cited unequal treatment.

• Asked how they were treated unfairly, 44 percent of the women lawyers cited compensation, 13 percent cited lack of respect or credit, 13 percent said they were given lesser tasks or assignments, 7 percent said they were passed over for promotion, and 7 percent said they were criticized or yelled at.

The study cites some examples of unfair treatment. One woman lawyer said she wasn’t allowed to go to lunch with “the boys” because she had to stay behind to answer phones. Another reported that women staffers and junior male lawyers at her firm aren’t as responsive to female lawyers as male lawyers.

The study also cites a “maternal wall bias” in which mothers are perceived as less committed to work, subjected to heightened scrutiny and given less challenging assignments. One woman said she was told that women should not be attorneys because they always put their family first. Another said her boss treated women lawyers more like secretaries, and he “completely wrote me off” after she became pregnant.

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