Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis
University of Pennsylvania Law School and Hillary Clinton Fellow at Georgetown University
In the early years of the 1990s, Lani Guinier and her co-authors in “On Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy League Law School” chronicle a law school experience stratified by gender. Based on survey and focus group data, the authors argue that women at our law school, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, 30 years ago were significantly more likely to experience both discomforts with their class performance and alienation from the learning environment. Two of the hypotheses put forward to examine the causal links between academic performance and classroom experience and overall law school performance and mentorship.
Thirty years later, in the fall of 2020, the class on Women, Law and leadership Class became an incubator to explore these hypotheses through a set of interviews and collection of qualitative data. We hypothesized that women students' experience in our class would be different from their predecessors studied in “Becoming Gentlemen” by Guinier and her co-authors. Based on the over 100 interviews of male allies at Penn Law, we claim that this change is mainly due to the transformation in the attitudes of the male peers in the classroom and the conduct of male leaders in the workplace.
The 100 plus male students who were interviewed supported their female peers and the values of gender equality in general. The changes in male attitudes were key to altering the learning and working environments. While Guinier and co-authors showcased how women were becoming “bi-cultural” and adopting male tendencies to succeed, we noted that men rather than the women were becoming “bi-cultural.” Men were now more likely to embrace gender-sensitive attitudes and more systemic and structural change on caregiving and workplace organizational behavior. Most of our respondents found it important to amplify women’s voices, not only because it was the right thing to do but because these diverse voices enriched their own insights on law and life.
The male ally interviews were combined with mini-surveys on how women in the class experience bias. These mini-surveys were two-pronged: The first survey included fifty women: women in the class on Women, Law, and Leadership, and the women students in the Policy Lab on Sexual Harassment. The second survey included Black women in the class and their peers from outside the class.
The initial impulse for these surveys grew out of our in-class study of Deborah Rhode’s extensive work on the experiences of women in the legal profession, David Wilkins’s corpus of scholarship on diversity in the legal profession, Kenneth Mack’s work on Sadie T.M. Alexander and the history of Black women in the legal profession, Martha Minow’s scholarship on inclusion, and Vicki Schultz on her examination of implicit bias and women’s experiences in the workplace. We also immersed ourselves in the intersectionality work of Kimberly Crenshaw. We also read text on stereotype threat, such as Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us” and discussed modern-day variations of bias, including Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.”
Growing out of class discussions of the “Thousand Papercuts” in Vicki Schultz’s retelling of the biases that women in Silicon Valley face, students suggested mini-surveys of what would constitute modern-day papercuts—those daily indignities and exclusions that women face that in isolation may not be problematic, but in the aggregate could cause damage.
Although our qualitative data shows that attitudes among male students at Penn Law have changed dramatically, how women internalize stereotypes and the threat that these unexamined assumptions pose remain real and have changed little over the thirty years.
It is clear that women then as now internalize stereotypes to their detriment. In “Becoming Gentlemen,” a female student stated 30 years ago: “After I discovered I was being called a feminized dyke, I never spoke in class again.” In 2020, the vernacular may have changed, but harmful stereotypes still lurk in the shadows, and women tend to self-censure based on the fear of those tropes of the Janus- faced “aggressive” and “meek” female. However, what differentiates the current women and men of Penn Law from their predecessors 30 years ago is that they are no longer silent about gender and intersectional stratification issues.
Our data show that subtle biases and stereotypes remain pervasive and might be masked by social protocols that normalize such behavioral attitudes. However, men and women are aware of these invisible barriers to success and are no longer passive bystanders to a parade of caste protocols. In the final analysis, there is a marked shift from Penn Law women “becoming gentlemen” to both Penn Law women and men “becoming norm entrepreneurs” who are interested in changing social norms.
Survey of Gender Bias in Elite Law Firms in China
Through a survey of close to 450 emerging women leaders in the law, interviews with male allies and female partners at major law firms in China, four Chinese lawyers who are LLM students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School identified some key barriers to women's leadership and the role of male allyship. In this groundbreaking study, the students used a mixed-methods approach to gather qualitative and quantitative data about the gendered factors affecting women lawyers in selected elite law firms in China.
One part of this study surveyed nearly 450 young lawyers aged 25- 30 in elite law firms on their experience of bias and attitudes. What was significant was their attitude toward pregnancy. Given the age group, only 7.92 percent of the women had children, but 100 percent of this cohort agreed that having a child had a negative impact on their career. Both the quantitative and qualitative data showed a fear of the “motherhood burden” and young women lawyers' fears of the negative impact of motherhood on a career in elite law firms.
"Once female lawyers take parental leave, their clients would be grabbed by other lawyers. To endure fairness, I think the only solution is to have mandatory parental leave on both female and male lawyers . . . I am still single, but I am so worried."
Another lawyer stated: "I feel sad that there exists no discussion about gender bias in the legal industry in China." This is an important finding. As Joan Williams says in the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession report on "Interrupting Racial and Gender Bias in the Legal Profession, "You cannot change what you cannot see." Seeing then is the first step. As our researchers point out, “It is important that we be trained to "see" gender bias lest it becomes invisible and ignored.”
Black Women Future Leaders
The Report on “Black Women Future Leaders” analyzes the results of a survey of BLSA students and finds that the threat of stereotypes acts as a silencing tool. Even when students may not have had a personal experience of being labeled, they adjust their behavior and speech patterns to avoid those labels.
As Isabel Wikerson writes in “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent:”
“Caste is more than rank; it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else's definition of who they are and who they should be."
The reports that grew out of our class discussion examine the insidious and often invisible undercurrents of bias that confine women, especially minority women, in a way that deprives all of us of the use of a basic human trait, the power of our imagination to see outside of a narrowly imagined sense of the world.
On that note of the power of imagination, the speakers in our class shared their art as a powerful tool to open up difficult conversations and share stories. David Hornik shared with us his extensive art collection by Black and Asian artists. He also shared with us Edward McClunny’s print of Thurgood Marshall. We include it in our report.
New York Public Library General Counsel Michele Mayes, an avid art collector, showed the class a mixed-media piece by Charly Palmer depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. standing in line to vote with one of his daughters.
Lawyer and art entrepreneur Shalini Ganendra discussed curating practices in light of racial injustice. As a Fellow at Oxford, she discussed her work on the influence of colonization on art and art critique.
The art depicted in the covers of our reports and the reports themselves are an invitation to engage in conversation about these modern-day biases that are hard to address. As Wilkerson says: “Modern-day caste protocols are less often about overt attacks or conscious hostility… They are like the wind, powerful enough to knock you down but invisible as they go about their work.”