States Acting Against Gender Bias

Reforms aim at protecting women - from single mothers to judges - from discrimination

A NEW look is being taken, in many states, at whether women are receiving equal treatment under the law. States are setting up task forces, beginning studies, and changing rules to ensure fair treatment. ``Because our legal system has developed from unstated male norms, it has never focused on harms to women,'' says Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (NJEP).

``Gender-bias studies provide a necessary first step in the process of correcting this inherent bias by identifying many of the ways women lawyers, judges, litigants, witnesses, jurors, and court employees are adversely affected by the legal system,'' Ms. Schafran says.

On Nov. 16 the Judicial Council of California voted to adopt 67 recommendations of a council committee that had found widespread disparity in the treatment of men and women in the state's courts and jails.

Thirty-five states have established gender-bias task forces, and 14 issue annual assessment reports, according to the NJEP, a 10-year-old organization that has provided much of the momentum behind these changes.

In Massachusetts, guidelines have been developed for setting the amount of child support based on income rather than judicial discretion, as well as an assignment system that takes the child support directly out of delinquent fathers' paychecks.

``It's vastly increased the amount of money coming into the hands of those it was ordered for,'' says Jon Laramore, a Massachusetts assistant attorney general.

The California council recommended that law enforcement officials take domestic violence complaints more seriously.

And in California and New York, judges are now available 24 hours a day to issue protective orders against violent partners. Before, the orders were issued only during normal working hours, making it difficult for many mothers with small children to obtain them.

Rhode Island's gender-bias task force found a way to establish the monetary value of a homemaker's work. The task force also labeled gender bias ``unethical conduct,'' and it called for upgrading the status of female court employees.

The American Bar Association last summer approved a rule making sexual harassment official misconduct.

And, recently, a federal district judge ruled that a prominent Philadelphia law firm was guilty of sex discrimination when it denied a partnership to a female attorney.

Participants at a recent conference on gender bias at Boston College spoke of judges awarding too little alimony because they didn't understand the difficulties faced by a 50-year-old former homemaker trying to enter the job market for the first time.

``We've done better at changing laws in different states, but not attitudes of judges,'' said US Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, keynote speaker at the conference.

The NJEP is working with law schools to educate future lawyers and judges. The organization wants to move discussion of the problem from being a problem for women to being a problem of the courts.

``We're not trying to be a special-interest group, but [to] get judges to administer justice with greater fidelity to their own ideals,'' says Schafran.

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