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Home / Top Legal News / TIPPING THE SCALES:Female attorneys in the Carolinas are closing the gender parity gap — but work remains

TIPPING THE SCALES:Female attorneys in the Carolinas are closing the gender parity gap — but work remains

In 1970, Victoria Eslinger, a first-year law student at the University of South Carolina, approached a Senate clerk with her application to serve as a page.  “He leaned down and looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re a girl,’ and I said, ‘Yes sir,’” Eslinger said. “He said, ‘Well, we don’t hire girls. If you were your brother, we would be happy to have you.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you can do that. I think that’s a violation of the 14th Amendment.’  

“He leaned down and patted me on the head and he said, ‘So sue me.’ So, I did.” 

As a first-year law student, Eslinger brought a lawsuit against the governor and the South Carolina Senate for discrimination. Her lawyers included Jean Toal, who later became the Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  

“It took three years,” Eslinger said. “And now there are women in South Carolina’s Senate as pages. Now we have women senators, I’m happy to see. This was sort of the beginning.” 

Eslinger graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1973 as one of five women in her class. She went on to form the South Carolina Women’s Lawyers Association, and is now a senior counsel at Nexsen Pruet, and a faculty member at Harvard University School of Law.  

Eslinger’s is among the generation of women that paved the way for female attorneys across the Carolinas, and nationally.

“When I started practicing law, only 3% of the nation’s lawyers were female,” Eslinger said. “I remember somebody thinking it was a great compliment to tell me I was pretty smart for a woman.” 

While the discrepancy between men and women in leadership positions in the law field remain, according to a 2020 global study by conducted by the Thomson Reuters Institute, women now make up 56% of junior associates. While this is a notable improvement from 50 years ago there is still work to be done. 

“I know women go into law school pretty equally, if not more than men right now,” Aindrea Pledger, attorney at Daggett Shuler said. “However, when you look at leadership, that is just not the case. There’s not nearly as many women partners in organizations. I think that having all the perspectives at the table is very important, because the people we represent are extremely diverse. The world is diverse, so we must have diverse voices at the table.”

Despite of the fact that industry data shows gender diversity positively impacts law firm performance women account for only 24% of equity partners, according to the 2020 study. 

Owner and founder of Sharp Law Firm, and immediate past president of the South Carolina Bar, Mary Sharp is among women in leadership roles in the Carolinas.  

“When I started practicing law about 30 years ago, I was in a small, rural part of the state,” Sharp said. “I’m a trial lawyer, so I found myself going to roster meetings and seeing portraits of men on the walls, and not many women in the courtroom with me, and I experienced periodic discrimination or harassment.”  

Lingering cultural attitudes about women’s roles in the home has been identified as a barrier for women in the law field.

“Sometimes you walk into a place and people seem surprised,” Regina Hollins Lewis, Member at Gaffney Lewis LLC said. “They look at you like, ‘Oh gosh, this is not who I thought it was going to be.’” 

Since then, Sharp has noticed the importance of mentorship among female attorneys and has gotten involved in many organizations that provide community and support to women in the law field. In the past, she has acted as president of the South Carolina Women’s Lawyers Association, and president of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations. 

“I saw that there were ways women’s lives could be improved as lawyers,” Sharp said. “Getting involved in bar organizations and women’s bar organizations was a way to try to help further women’s roles in the legal profession.” 

The theme of community and mentorship is echoed by many other women in law across the Carolinas.  

“The way to survive as a woman in law, is to surround yourself with other women in law,” Pledger said.  

Despite the organizations and associations aimed at supporting women attorney, nationally, women are choosing to leave law after facing barriers. According to an American Bar Association study, by age 50, women make up only 27% of the profession.  

The ABA report includes input from more than 1,200 big firm lawyers who have been in practice for at least 15 years. According to the study, women were far more likely than men to report factors that blocked there, “access to success,” including lacking access to business development opportunities, being perceived as less committed to career, and being denied or overlooked for promotion. 

“At the 10 to 12 year mark is really where we’re seeing women leave,” Samantha Sliney, attorney at the U.S. Air Force, and North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys immediate past president said. “In different surveys and data when you ask women why they leave, many will cite striking the balance between career and parenthood, they will cite lack of support, like lactation support, they will cite lack of standardized parental leave.” 

The research showed that although firm leaders and male partners believe their firms are succeeding in advancing experienced women, women tend to disagree. For example, 84% of managing partners agreed that their firms have succeeded in promoting women into leadership, and 75% of experienced men agreed whereas just 55% of women agreed. 

“The fact that women find themselves in the position where they feel like they had to choose between the family they wanted and the career they wanted, I find to be very sad,” Sliney said. “What that tells me is that we don’t have the support and protections under the law that mandate employers to provide that support to women so they feel like they can do both.” 

To create support and equality within firms, Jennifer Van Zant, partner at Brooks Pierce, believes it is vital for people to be cognizant of their unconscious bias, and educate themselves about the discrepancy in compensation and leadership.  

“I would like people to look at their own firms and their own situation and try to identify what barriers there are to success within their organization,” Van Zant said. 

According to Pledger, in order to combat the lack of retention of female attorneys, women’s voices need to be involved in creating policies to cultivate an environment that will retain more women. 

“Biologically and anatomically, we face different phases of womanhood that men don’t face,” Sliney said. “It just requires differing levels of support for us to be able to manage a career, and womanhood, and motherhood – should you decide to have children.” 

According to the ABA study, flexible working arrangements have been cited as an effective method to increase women’s ability to reach senior management roles.  

“The pandemic really ushered in a lot of remote work,” Pledger said. “And I think that has been helpful for working parents a lot of which are moms. We’ve been able to have remote depositions and remote hearings. All of those things that allow flexibility into the schedule that helps retain working mothers.” 

Since remote and hybrid work became more common, woman have faced less difficulty in their legal career and ultimately rising to leadership positions, which has a long term effect on women in the law field.  

“Once you see the example of women in leadership roles, it really just inspires hope for those that are younger that it is attainable,” Sliney said. “Organizations like North Carolina Associations of Women Attorneys strives to ensure that example is out there and that we are, setting the stage and creating an environment where women can be successful in the legal profession.” 

Leadership outside of law firms, but in the bar, are seeing similarly increased trends of women in leadership roles over the past few decades. As the 123rd president of the North Carolina Bar Association, Caryn McNeill, partner at Smith Anderson, was the seventh woman to hold the position.  

“We’ve stopped counting in that way though, which I think is a good thing,” McNeill said. “It’s normal enough that people have lost track of what the number is.” 

While the gender disparity in law field leadership remains prevalent, according to Annemarie Pantazis, Managing Partner at Wilder Pantazis Law Group, it no longer viewed as abnormal for women to hold these positions. 

“I think women have made so many strides, but what I love the most is that it’s not unusual anymore to be a woman who owns a law firm or a woman who’s a managing partner or a woman who has a seat at the table, it’s typical,” Pantazis said. “I think that’s the biggest stride, that’s not unusual. It’s becoming the norm and not the exception, which is exactly where it should be.” 

To keep the advances that women have made in the law field, Eslinger echoes the words of her former attorney, Jean Toal, urging female attorneys in leadership roles to “keep the ladder down,” and help their fellow women in law reach similar success.  

“I do a lot of talks to young women lawyers,” Eslinger said. “I usually end it by telling them that I hope they’ll live their lives in such a way, that every morning when their feet hit the ground, Satan shutters and says, ‘Oh crap, she’s awake.’” 

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