Why Women Are Leaving the Law: A Diversity & Inclusion Conference Discussion

September 22, 2021   |   Stewart Poisson

As part of NCAJ’s Third Annual NCAJ Diversity & Inclusion Conference, psychologist Jessica Lennon Whitney will present on the unique challenges that women face in the practice of law and offer suggestions for firms and women lawyers to attempt to mitigate some of these challenges. NCAJ Board of Governors member Stewart Poisson offers a preview of the discussion.

The virtual Diversity & Inclusion Conference runs from 9 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1. Other topics on the agenda are how to better serve LGBTQ clients and the makeup of juries in North Carolina based on data from over 1,300 empaneled juries. Register here.

What made you focus on gender equity in the workplace as a major part of your work?

I have been interested in how gender shapes individuals’ experiences for as long as I can remember. In many ways, women and men live in different realities, especially at work. In my undergraduate studies in the mid ‘90s, I majored in psychology and minored in Women’s Studies; I learned how gender-based discrimination was baked into the fabric of our American culture – financially, socially, legally – and codified into our institutions. In the past few decades, we are witnessing a growing awareness of these institutional biases, which I find exciting, as I believe change is on the horizon.

What are some of the unique challenges that women face in legal careers as compared to other professions?

While women in the law face many of the same challenges as other professional women, some of these challenges are magnified. Credibility bias is a hurdle for women attorneys, especially because the legal profession is slow to change and not known for its creativity. Implicit biases about men and women, and their work and leadership styles, become especially relevant as we consider the individualistic, competitive nature of the law. While these unique challenges exist, there are strategies we can pursue at both institutional and individual levels to effect change.

This will be your third speaking engagement with NCAJ.  Your prior presentations addressed implicit bias and resilience, but this third presentation on gender equity really gets to the heart of your work in the private sector at Ernst & Young and later at Time Warner.  What do you enjoy about speaking to NCAJ members? 

I love speaking with NCAJ members! While psychology and the law may appear to be disparate fields, both seek to understand and organize human behavior in prosocial ways. As a result, they are guided by similar processes: a focus on thoughtful analysis, logic and reason, discretion and confidentiality, and clear communication. During my two prior presentations on implicit bias and resilience, NCAJ members were extremely engaged and asked challenging and interesting questions – basically a dream come true for any presenter.  

For this presentation I reviewed ABA research on why senior women are leaving their careers in the law.  I will explore the factors influencing women’s departure from the law and present strategies in each area to address these challenges.  I am excited for a vibrant discussion on this important topics.