Legal Practice

Elephant in the Room: Sexism in the Court Room

If you have any interest in the criminal justice system or being a litigator then please take a moment to read a report called “Toughen up buttercup vs. TimesUp: initial findings of the ABA women in criminal justice Task Force.” It’s a report on the task force findings after having discussing with different women in the criminal justice system and in summary–things aren’t great.

I really urge folks to take some time to read it or the summaries so you can get a sense of what it’s like to be a women in the criminal justice system. There are issues with overt sexism from coworkers, judges, and opposing counsel; enforced gender norms (having to play up your femininity or take on masculine behavior); microaggressions; straight up disrespect; constant “prove it again” behavior; and the ever-present belief that the environment isn’t the issue, rather it’s–you–you’re the one that needs to toughen up.

Barf.

I will say that litigation and trial works is top-tier adversarial and can get rough and tumble, for sure. But it’s the CJS that tends to be over-the-top. I can guess it’s due to multiple reasons–law enforcement is majority male and they perpetuate their toxic behavior, even in professional settings; our criminal justice system is focused on punishment, which requires dehumanizing people and creating emotional barriers for ourselves to numb the discomfort; men are threatened by women “infiltrating” their space and work to make them feel uncomfortable…

I mean I could go on and on, but read the article. And I’ll just add that of all the places I’ve worked/interned as a student, the PDs was the most overtly inappropriate. I heard slurs against gay people, was sexually harassed, and lots of other fun stuff… so yeah, not even being in this sector I can see how this is rife with problems.

Ultimately, what does it mean to be a woman of color and enter the criminal justice system as an attorney? How can you avoid the bad behavior, the disrespect, and digs in a way that keeps your mental health in tact? Is the only solution to “toughen up” or are there ways to dismantle this type of behavior?

 

One. Bros, what are you doing? Normally, I write these posts and talk specifically to my Lawtinas about ways to overcome bad behaviors and barriers. But this time, what I want to us to do is share this with our male colleagues because this behavior has to stop. And it’s not enough to not do it–to not harass or disrespect (that is the bare minimum) but rather stepping up when other men misbehave and saying wtf. Because studies are clear when women/POC complain about bad behavior, we are punished for it. So if men are really done and say they are supportive, they need to recognize the mistreatment and disrespect that is happening in form of jokes and off-color remarks and be brave enough to say it’s inappropriate. Trust, it will be so much better for everyone if we toned down the toxic behaviors and comments down a tad.

Two. Recognize toxic work environments. It can be so hard when you’re in the mix of it to recognize that you’re in a bad work environment. Especially when you’re being told that you need to get thicker skin, need to lighten up, need to learn to take a joke, etc. Sure, there may be issues we are overly sensitive about and we can recognize that in ourselves. But more often than not, when something is said or done that makes us uncomfortable, it’s not because we are wrong to feel that way. So, when you face incidents where you are disrespected and your employer’s response is that you’re the problem, you need to recognize that you are not in a supportive place and likely the behavior will continue unless you escalate and push for change, which comes with its own sets of risks and benefits. But at the very least, understanding what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior helps you better assess your situation and help you determine whether to stay or go OR how you’ll respond to this knowing that you’re not in a supportive environment. And “recognizing” may seem simple, but sometimes we are so caught off guard and shocked by behavior that it takes some time for us to realize what’s happening. Sexism can be insidious in that way.

So what are your options, really? Naturally, I want to say that the only option is for you to call out behavior, report, etc. This should be the no-brainer option, but it’s not always that easy. We are up against a sexist system and there are attorneys who not only subconsciously dislike women, but have outright disdain and revel in being disrespectful or dream of putting us “in our place.” And the report in the ABA shows that in the CJS this behavior is heightened. There are no easy options, unfortunately, because until we have real access to power we are at the whim of folks who may think you just need to toughen up. I don’t have the magic solution to cure sexism, I wish I did. What I do know is that there is a growing trend (because there are more of us), to hold bad actors accountable, but it will continue to be an uphill battle. But the more you go into this profession with eyes open and recognizing these behaviors the better you can respond and recalibrate. Ultimately, you want to succeed in your career with your mental health intact. Recognize when a program/office/employer no longer suits you and be open to new possibilities in places where you can flourish.

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