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Session Summary: the Future of Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

submitted by Becky Jacobs

On Friday afternoon, August 10th, the “Perspectives on the Future of Gender Equality in the Legal Profession” panel took place at the SEALS conference. The focus of the panel was on gender and equality throughout the legal profession. With Tennessee’s Becky Jacobs moderating, the panel engaged a very interactive audience in a dialogue about the historical exclusion of women and minorities in the legal profession and contemporary practices that disparately impact women and minorities.

Renee Knake, Professor of Law & Doherty Chair of Legal Ethics at the University of Houston Law Center and Hannah Brenner, Associate Professor of Law at California Western School of Law, began the session with a discussion of their forthcoming book, Shortlisted: Women, Diversity and the Supreme Court, which is being published by NYU Press. The book, the result of a collaboration that has been on-going for a number of years, examines the consequences when women and minority candidates for positions of leadership and power are “shortlisted” – i.e., deemed qualified among an elite group but ultimately not selected. Renee and Hannah introduced their topic with some very sobering data about women in the legal profession, who enter the profession in equal numbers to men, but who represent only a fraction leadership and equity positions in Fortune ranked companies, law forms, the judiciary, and academia. They then explained the genesis for the book, which arose as they prepared their 2012 article, Rethinking Gender Equality in the Legal Profession’s Pipeline to Power: A Study on Media Coverage of Supreme Court Nominees, 84 Temple L. Rev. 325 (2012). For the article, they read thousands of media articles that discussed female nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following this (rather intimidating) explanation of their research methods, they summarized their book’s biographical section, which presents the stories of nine women who were officially shortlisted for the United States Supreme Court before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice. These were highly accomplished women who successfully ascended to positions of leadership and power in the legal profession, but, while “shortlisted,” ultimately were not nominated to join the Court. A very thought-provoking discussion of the book’s broader examination of the causes and possible “cures” for all forms of shortlisting for positions of leadership in the legal profession and beyond followed the pair’s presentation.

The next panelist, Carla D. Pratt, the new Dean and Professor of Law at Washburn University School of Law, shared her very intriguingly-titled, “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Law School Leadership” presentation. This included a summary of the very moving personal accounts of women who have achieved academic and professional success but who still believe that they are “imposters” and that their success is due to a mistake, to luck, or to factors unrelated to their intellect abilities. The group enthusiastically considered a number of questions related to the imposter syndrome and its relationship to the success of women in the legal professions and other professional and personal settings: how can women help one another overcome imposter syndrome; how does intersectionality factor into imposter syndrome; and what can we do to encourage more women to step into leadership roles and ensure that their performance in those roles is fairly assessed?


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