The most interesting part of American Crime Story, the TV series chronicling the O.J. Simpson trial, was the way it revealed how mid-90s views on race and gender shaped the outcome of this case.
Throughout the trial, lead prosecutor Marcia Clark was a target for sexism. Everything from her hair to her child-care issues were judged in the courtroom and by the public. But what's more surprising than the level of gender discrimination during the trial is that in 2016, female lawyers still deal with a lot of the same prejudice.
A recent study from the Canadian Lawyers' Association (CLA) found that far more women give up working in criminal law than men. Of those who started practicing in 1998, 60 per cent of women left by 2014, compared to 47 per cent of their male colleagues. Women who currently work in law said the struggle to raise kids while balancing work in a sexist environment was a top challenge of the job.
There are many reasons women struggle in high-pressure jobs, none of which are because they can't hack it. In most families, women are still the primary caregivers, which makes it hard to hold down a position that can demand 70-hour work weeks and late-night client calls. As a mother of two young boys and going through a divorce, Clark was mocked by defence lawyers when child-care issues almost prevented her from staying late at court.
Today, female criminal lawyers still grapple to achieve work-life balance in a profession that demands they be both super moms and super lawyers. The CLA survey found that if female lawyers take maternity leave, they lose clients and set back their careers, while those who run small practices often have no resources to take a break. Many women reported that when they asked to leave court early to pick up kids, judges were less amenable than when their male colleagues made the same requests.
"It is hard to juggle court hours with daycare hours," one woman told the CLA. "Often I am begging for adjournments (at) 4:30 so I can get my kids from daycare." When women take advantage of "family friendly" policies offered at some firms, such as remote work and part-time schedules, they are often taken less seriously.
"That Clark's perm is a lasting symbol of the O.J. trial is a disappointment, but worse is that unlike the hairstyle, sexism is still in fashion."
Though firms can make policy changes to address work-life balance, it's harder to reform a sexist culture. During the O.J. trial, Clark's hairstyles and demeanor were scrutinized as much as her tactics. Her tight perm was mocked relentlessly by the media. When Clark switched to a straight bob mid-way through the trial people actually applauded, her suits were called "dowdy" and a jury consultant found she came across as "shrill" and "a bitch."
This year, defence lawyer Marie Henein was subject to the same microscopic treatment. Throughout the Ghomeshi case, she was constantly referred to as a "Hannibal Lecter" who conducts "machete"-style cross-examinations (full disclosure: I used those descriptions myself.) Not a day went by when a journalist didn't write about her pomp of black hair and $1,500 leopard-patterned shoes -- the implication being that professional women shouldn't care so much about how they look. The attire of the male prosecutor did not receive anywhere near the same level of sartorial scrutiny.
In addition to sexism from the media and public, female criminal lawyers also face misogyny in the workplace. They are often patronized rather than treated as competent colleagues. Female lawyers told the CLA they were called "little lady" in court, asked by male colleagues to do administrative tasks beneath their pay grade and treated more disrespectfully by judges than the men.
It's absurd that in 2016, female criminal lawyers still struggle in a basic way to be taken seriously by the media, the public and their male colleagues. That Clark's perm is a lasting symbol of the O.J. trial is a disappointment, but worse is that unlike the hairstyle, sexism is still in fashion.
This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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