Pipeline to Power Symposium explores gender equality in the legal profession

Annoyance and concern over the portrayal of a woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court prompted two law scholars to examine the question of "how formidable are the barriers women face when climbing the steps to real power in the legal profession?"

They concluded that the answer was "pretty formidable."

That study eventually led to a major symposium.

More women enter the law profession every day, but the "glass ceiling" that keeps them from achieving success comparable to their male counterparts is the subject of the symposium "Gender and the Legal Profession's Pipeline to Power."

Despite increasing numbers of women attorneys and law students, leadership roles continue to be elusive for women in the profession. They comprise only 6 percent of managing partners in law firms and hold less than 15 percent of equity partnerships in those firms. Only 20 percent of general counsels for Fortune 500 companies and 20 percent of law school deans are women.

"Prof. Renee Newman Knake and I engaged in a research project about the time Elena Kagan was being considered for the U.S. Supreme Court," says Hannah Brenner, a law lecturer at Michigan State University College of Law. "We exchanged e-mails expressing our concern about some of the ways that Kagan was being portrayed in the media. She was being questioned about her marital status, motherhood and her appearance. We decided to conduct an empirical study on how nominees to the Supreme Court had been portrayed depending on gender."

Brenner and Knake's study suggested that a big part of the problem is the continued distorted views on women that are perpetuated, at least in part, by media representations.

"We went back to Justices Rehnquist and Powell in the 1970s up to the nomination of Elena Kagan," Brenner said. "Our research looked at a number of factors and we evaluated every article on the nominations in the New York Times and the Washington Post from the date they were mentioned as a potential nominee until the day they were confirmed. We looked at mentions of appearance, parental status, family life, and motherhood. The research culminated in an article for the Temple Law Review, which was really the impetus for creating this symposium."

The event is presented by the Michigan State Law Review and Michigan State University College of Law's Frank J. Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession and brings together experts from the fields of law, gender studies, political science and journalism. It will be held at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit on Thursday, April 12, and Friday, April 13.

Topics will include Gender, Race and the Judiciary; Gender Equality: From the Boardroom to the Electorate; Rethinking Our Understanding of Gender Inequity; and Bringing it Closer to Home: The Pipeline to Power for Women Lawyers in Michigan.

Working with those scholars was a learning experience even for Brenner and Knake.

"Our hope in creating this project was that it would give us a better understanding of what's happening 'on the ground,'" she said. "In doing this research, we learned about the extraordinary work of so many scholars across the country who are continuing to advance this conversation about gender equality in the legal profession."

Linda Greenhouse will deliver the keynote lecture at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 12.

Greenhouse was a journalist and covered the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York Times from 1978 to 2008. She is now Senior Research Scholar in Law, Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. She is also a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Other speakers and panelists will include Harvard Law Professor Judge Nancy Gertner, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria A. Roberts and Dean and Law Professor Joan W. Howarth of Michigan State University College of Law.

MSU College of Law, in its earlier incarnation as Detroit College of Law, was one of the first law schools to open its doors to women and minorities, admitting Lizzie McSweeney to its first class in 1891. The stated intention of the event is to "continue this tradition by advancing the conversation on how to resolve remaining gender disparity in the profession."

For those unable to attend, Pace School of Law Professor Bridget Crawford will be live blogging the event at The Faculty Lounge at www.thefacultylounge.org/ and articles and summaries of the discussions will appear in the Michigan State Law Review at www.msulawreview.org/ .

For more information, visit www.law.msu.edu/pipeline/index.html.

Published: Wed, Apr 11, 2012

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