US, Canada lawyers probe gender bias in legal system

The United States legal system, historically dominated by men, is starting to recognize, and to some extent accommodate, the perspectives of women. This message is clearly emerging from American Bar Association meetings now in session here.

ABA president Robert McCrate says the new emphasis on women in the law ``mirrors the trends in society'' that relate to gender and family matters.

He notes that women comprise over 40 percent of US law school classes and in some schools are even the majority. Women represented only 3 percent to 4 percent of legal students until the late 1960s.

Evidence that the legal system is responding to women's needs includes:

US Supreme Court rulings outlawing gender bias in the work place and barring sex discrimination in the membership of private clubs where business is transacted.

Increased litigation and legislative activity in women- and family-related matters such as child custody, adoption, division of marital assets, domestic violence, and rape.

Debate on reproductive technology, including the conception of children through in vitro fertilization and surrogacy contracts.

An urging of the development of law and lawyers in a ``gender neutral'' context.

The ABA will consider resolutions this week that would discourage law firms from using private clubs that discriminate against women. The more than 10,000 lawyers and judges will also hear an interim report by the ABA's newly formed Commission on Women in the Professions.

In the past, this association of lawyers and judges was deeply divided on the issue of membership in private clubs that discriminate against women. It did, however, ultimately go on record condemning such bias.

Now President McCrate says ABA members broadly accept anti-discrimination stances in the social arena. But both men and women delegates here note that gender bias is still prevalent among lawyers and judges and in the legal system at large.

Recent surveys in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts indicate that women litigants often fare worse in the courts than their male counterparts. There is also evidence of sexual harassment and stereotyping of female lawyers and judicial employees.

The ABA's Commission on Women in the Professions, chaired by Hillary Rodham Clinton, is calling for lawyers and judges to ``reaffirm the principle that discrimination is incompatible with standards of professionalism.'' This study reports that women are underrepresented in positions of authority in law schools, law firms, and the judiciary.

Canadian women lawyers and judges at this meeting also complained of gender bias in their legal system.

Mary Jane Mossman, a professor of law at York University in Ontario, says that women lawyers in Canada often have ``difficulty in getting entry-level jobs'' as well as becoming partners in law firms. She criticizes a ``socialization process that expects women to succeed in a man's world on male terms.''

Professor Mossman was recently rejected in her bid to become dean of York's law school. Students and faculty who backed her appointment filed a sex discrimination complaint with Canada's Human Rights Commission.

Sheila McIntyre of Ontario's Queens University says that, although sex bias is evident in the Canadian system, with rights afforded in their five-year-old constitution Canadian women expect affirmative action. ``We are not bound by precedents written by white males,'' she says.

Prof. Nadine Taub of Rutgers University, a pioneer in US sex-discrimination law, says that even criminal justice is taught from a ``male bias and perspective.'' She mentions textbook approaches to domestic violence that suggest women may bring abuse upon themselves.

``It is important to include the woman's perspective in law school because this will affect society,'' Professor Taub says. ``The law is what people make it in practice.''

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