Empowering Women in Law: Overcoming Gender Bias and Shaping the Future

Women experience significant barriers in law and remain underrepresented in firms across the country. Discover how to break these barriers.
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Bernard Grant, Ph.D., covers higher education, work and labor issues, arts and culture, and (neuro)diversity and inclusion. A dedicated inclusionist, Bernard serves as a board member of NeuroGuides and a life coach at Autism Personal Coach. Bernar...
Published on August 25, 2023
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In the fall of 2019, the American Bar Association (ABA) released a study that revealed how differently male and female lawyers see women’s advancement in the legal profession.

Across 1,200 senior lawyers at top law firms, 88% of men thought their law firms treated women fairly. In contrast, only 54% of women lawyers agreed.

The study, titled "Walking Out the Door," also found that nearly 3 out of 4 male lawyers said their law firms retained women lawyers, while only 47% of women agreed.

The Gender Bias in Law

In law schools, the number of women students has surpassed that of men. In 2021, there were 12,800 more women enrolled in law school than men, marking a significant shift from previous years.

According to an ABA profile of the legal profession, only 4% of first-year law students were female in 1963. This percentage slowly rose to 20% in 1973, 39% in 1983, and 44% by 1993.

While more than 50% of law school graduates are women, men outnumber women in the legal profession at all levels due to historic inequities in the field. The ABA reports that only 3% of lawyers 1950 to 1970 identified as women. In 1980 this percentage increased to 8%, then to 20% in 1991. By 2000, only 29% of attorneys were women. In 2022, another ABA survey discovered that only 38% of all lawyers identified as women.

Even today, in 2023, less than half of women in law work in leadership roles, with only 20% of equity partners identifying as women.

Common Barriers for Women Lawyers

Women in law face significant barriers that include bias, lack of inclusion in leadership, and gender-based discrimination and harassment. This includes sexual assault and violence.

According to ABA Journal, only 58% of women lawyers surveyed said they’d recommend a legal career for their daughters. The biggest reason they cited is the sexism of the profession — similar to the sexism their mothers experienced in the 1980s.

This sexism includes things like men preferring to hire and promote other men, men talking over women in meetings, and women who talk over men being perceived as aggressive or nagging. It also includes sexual harassment in the workplace.

In addition to the attitudes and barriers only women face in law, other issues reveal that the system favors men. Law firms have been slow to build solutions catering to the biological and societal duties that women employees often have to take on, such as childbearing and caretaking. Over 80% of the women lawyers surveyed by the ABA Journal in 2023 cited work-life balance as the most convincing reason to leave their Big Law firm.

Additionally, the higher the level within the profession, the lower the percentage of women employees. While women make up 47% of all law associates, they only represent 30% of non-equity partners and 20% of equity partners, reports a 2019 NAWL survey. The gender demographics of judgeship are almost equal, but women comprise only 30% of federal judges.

6 Ways Women Lawyers Can Empower Themselves and Future Attorneys

Seek Leadership Roles

While becoming a leader in law is particularly difficult for women, women who are able to cross this barrier can consider making policy changes in the organizational culture to advocate for gender diversity and equity. If you work for a law firm that does not support women, consider making a move.

If you're a new lawyer looking for work, do your homework before signing on with a law firm. Do they have women partners? Are they able to retain their women employees? If not, consider applying to a different firm. Check LinkedIn and Glassdoor to read about the firm culture before inking the contract.

Foster Mentoring Relationships

You don’t need a leadership position to empower others. You can empower yourself and other women in law by seeking out mentoring relationships, whether you aspire to become a mentee, mentor, or both. Mentorship connects women within the field, providing valuable guidance and access to professional development opportunities.

Promote Inclusivity & Gender Equality

There are many ways to promote inclusivity and gender equality. You can advocate for equal pay, inclusive hiring practices, child care assistance and flexible schedules, whether online, at events, or in your own law firm. You can also contribute to policies that address workplace discrimination, like preventing gender bias and sexual assault.

Prioritize Work-Life Integration

Prioritizing work-life integration allows you to avoid burnout and maintain both your physical and mental health. Consider strategies like these:

  • Set boundaries, make them known, and stick to them.
  • Schedule and manage your time carefully, strategically, and with intention.

Maintaining a balance will help you maintain the energy to excel.

Embrace Collaboration

By actively embracing the power of collaboration and engaging in teamwork, you can enhance your legal knowledge and skills while building a strong professional network. Actively engage in teamwork when possible, seeking collaboration opportunities while supporting your peers. This way, you can create a sense of community, belonging, and collective empowerment.

Pay It Forward

Collective empowerment requires giving — so pay it forward! Consider taking a colleague out to lunch to learn how you can help them navigate their challenges and dismantle barriers. You can also freely support and uplift women colleagues by offering guidance and sharing networking, mentorship, and other professional development opportunities.

Interview With Danya Shakfeh, Founding Attorney of Motiva Business Law

Q: Can you share some specific challenges you faced as a woman, single mom, and Muslim lawyer and how you navigated through them?

As a female and Muslim, I often felt "out of place" when surrounded by the traditional legal scene. I also felt like an impostor for this reason. Over time though, I started to accept and even own being different. It turns out there are a lot of lawyers who also don't feel like they belong in the traditional legal space for many reasons. Seeing their successes pulled me out of the rut of feeling like an impostor. I also learned that many clients purposely seek out minorities (including white men!). In other words, there is a space for everyone. It's just a matter of accepting, finding, and, if necessary, creating that space.

As for being a single mom, it's definitely a struggle to manage everything. I've found that it's really important to take care of my mental health, and I delegate whatever I can, professionally and in terms of domestic duties. As an entrepreneur, I value my time more than money, and valuing my time is doubly true as a single mom.

Q: In what ways did your unique identity as a female, Muslim, hijab-wearing lawyer positively impact your practice and the relationships you built with clients and colleagues?

It makes me easily stick out! It's funny how, despite the goal of marketing being to differentiate yourself, many business owners (including myself) look to "what everyone else is doing." But sticking out is actually an advantage, even if uncomfortable. Second, being different forced me to overcome my own insecurities ... Having that experience where you are forced to train yourself not to take things personally helps me be authentic. Many clients also say that they feel more at ease with me.

Q: How did you initially perceive the legal profession, and what made you feel insecure and that you didn't belong? How did you overcome those feelings?

Frankly, my first perception of the legal profession was a middle-aged white man club. White men are what we mostly see in most legal ads and in magazines (though it's gotten better with time!). The key for me was finding "my people" and other lawyers who are unique in their own ways. Over time, I also learned that clients relate to me as I am.

Q: What inspired you to open your law firm and create a different environment? How does your firm differ from traditional law firms?

I've always wanted to be a business owner. I admit graduating from law school at the height of the [2008] Great Recession accelerated that plan since most firms had hiring freezes or layoffs. But since I value my time more than anything else, being a business owner was the only way to have that freedom of time. I also enjoy building and creating things, and, to me, a business is a blank canvas where you can execute a vision.

My firm is different because I take the time to get to know my clients at a personal level. Even though people often separate business from one's personal lives, the adage "business is personal" is closer to reality. Our personal goals ultimately drive our professional goals. By knowing what people's personal goals are, I can provide better services.

Q: Can you discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and how it contributes to better outcomes for clients and the overall industry?

They say that day can't exist without night and white cannot exist without black. It's the adage "Things exist in their opposites." Would you know that day was even "a thing" but for knowing night? Diversity and inclusion give our experiences something to compare to. Sometimes we don't even know there are different ways of approaching things until we are introduced to different concepts.

People from other backgrounds and cultures give us perspectives on communication styles and relationship building that we otherwise would not have known.

Q: As a mentor and advocate, what strategies or advice do you offer to women lawyers trying to navigate their careers and overcome challenges they may face?

Along the lines of the above, I would first acknowledge that we are not alone. There are many women (and minorities) who feel the same way. And there are clients who also prefer non-traditional law firms. In other words, "your people" do exist, and they are out there. You just have to find them.


  • National Association of Women Lawyers — An organization that advocates for gender equality in the legal field, NAWL provides essential events and resources that advance the careers of women lawyers.
  • Women Lawyer’s Committee Mentorship Toolkit — Launched by the International Bar Association (IBA), the Women Lawyer’s Committee Mentorship Toolkit provides mentorship guidance for women lawyers.
  • Gender Equality Law Center — Using an intersectional lens, Gender Equality Law Center dismantles barriers that limit opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income women, and gender non-conforming people.
  • Ms. JD — This online platform promotes female advancement in the legal profession through mentorship programs, an annual conference, and various resources, including a supportive community of women in law.
  • National Women’s Law Center — This organization offers legal assistance for people who’ve experienced sex discrimination or harassment at work, school, or healthcare facilities.