American women in the law have come a long way since Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, rushing back and forth between two buildings because only one had a women’s restroom.
But, as Ginsburg notes in the new documentary, Balancing The Scales, “we haven’t reached Nirvana yet.”
Her recorded remarks are just a small portion of the 40 interviews that filmmaker Sharon Rowen conducted over the course of 20 years, beginning in the mid-nineties, with female lawyers across a spectrum of age, expertise, and rank. Rowen, an Atlanta-based civil litigator who has been practicing since 1979, took on the project as a way to examine the progress women have made as lawyers as well as the structures that still hold them back. The film will be screening at legal networking events in the U.S. throughout the fall.
What Rowen learned, and what the film shows, is that progress has varied over time.
“I’ve always asked people what they think the biggest impediment is, and the answer seems to be generational,” Rowen said at a recent screening of the film before the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations annual meeting in New York. “So, for younger women, it seems to be work/life balance is still the major problem that they’re facing … And then as women move on and move up the ladder, the statistics show they feel the biggest impediment is the lack of equal pay.”
The earliest women lawyers faced all-male juries, blatant biases, and overt job discrimination, according to the documentary. In the 1940s, ‘50s and even ‘60s, women were expected to wear white gloves in the courtroom and could not carry their own files, the film shows.
Later, in the 1980’s, women were expected to be superwomen. In the film, one veteran litigator of that era describes her water breaking on the way to a client meeting — and she continued the meeting. Another says she was happy to give birth to her children on Fridays so that she could be in the office on Monday.
For the women entering the legal industry now, these types of sacrifices are mostly unimaginable. Though maternity leave policies vary from firm to firm, most young women lawyers now expect to take some time off after giving birth.
And yet, Rowen says, those women still bear the burden of childrearing if the men in their offices and in their lives are discouraged from taking time off as well. On top of that, women graduating from law school today often have more student debt and longer partnership trajectories than their predecessors, according to Rowen.
In addition, many younger women face pressure from older women who saw their struggles as par for the course, the film shows.
“The women who paved the way, and the women who kind of walked through the fire, deservedly, maybe, have an attitude, of, ‘I did it. I came up without any expectation of being treated differently, so if you want to make it you can too,’” Rowen said at the NCWBA screening. “I did find that attitude quite a bit from even the oldest lawyers who were disdainful of Title VII.”
Perhaps one of the most striking sections of Balancing The Scales comes toward the end, when women spanning multiple generations explain that they did not have children because they felt they needed to make a hard line choice between their careers and a family.
Balancing The Scales is not intended for those looking for a thorough account of how women currently stand in the legal industry. Rather, it puts those current struggles into historical and generational context. Rowen, who narrates throughout, does interject with statistics, but the film’s strength lies in its rich anecdotes and the willingness of the women who are interviewed to share their personal experiences on screen.
Justice Leah Ward Sears, who in 1992 became the first woman and youngest person to sit on Georgia’s Supreme Court, matter-of-factly describes the ogling eyes of incredulous onlookers who gathered outside her courtroom as she adjudicated her first case. It was not an interesting case, she explains. Later, in the film, she says that “things have gotten so much better.” Indeed they have, but that doesn’t mean the scales have fully balanced.
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