The American Bar Association Has Finally Banned Calling Female Attorneys "Honey" — & It's About Time

Photo: Courtesy of Zoan T. Davila Roldan
The author in Puerto Rico, where she practices law.
Zoan T. Davila Roldan is a criminal defense attorney working in Puerto Rico. The views expressed here are her own.

Exactly one year ago, I was sworn in as a lawyer and started to practice. Sadly, throughout these 12 months, I’ve been called things like "baby" and "little girl," I've had my professional skills questioned because I look young, and people have expressed doubts about my efficiency as a criminal lawyer, just because I’m a woman. I’ve even been treated condescendingly by officials who don’t really believe I’m an attorney, even as they don’t question the male lawyer — bearded and with a tie — standing before me in the same line.

This year, a prosecutor was disrespectful to me while we were in court — to the point of being reprimanded by the judge — while my second chair, a man, was treated only with courtesy. I’ve heard other lawyers talking about the physical appearance of female prosecutors, about the way they dress, and associating the passion they use during oral arguments in court with the possibility of them being just as passionate in the bedroom.

I’ve seen colleagues — female lawyers like me — who have been asked if they are secretaries or attorneys. Women have been asked in their own offices if they can go and fetch "the lawyer." Other colleagues have been asked after a meeting if they can take out the trash, clean the area, or even bring coffee to the male attorneys. Sadly, for us as female lawyers, this is something we can experience every day.

I’ve seen colleagues — female lawyers like me — who have been asked if they are secretaries or attorneys. Women have been asked in their own offices if they can go and fetch 'the lawyer.'

These are just some of the reasons why I’m so happy that this week the American Bar Association clearly and directly condemned the sexism and discrimination that’s so prevalent in this profession, prohibiting conduct that could be considered discriminatory or harassing. This is not only vindicating for those of us who have denounced this type of behavior, but it’s also a step forward to end the cycle of misogyny and discrimination in spaces where these actions have been tolerated and accepted as harmless for too long.

It’s kind of ironic that we must take these steps. One would think that in this profession — where there are such strict ethical norms based on respecting your colleagues and those we represent, where there’s such high levels of formal behavior in the courts and every judicial process — it would be obvious to respect your female colleagues and clients. But that’s not the case.

This measure has been heavily criticized, especially by those who say it could have an impact on their freedom of speech. It’s like a bad joke: lawyers criticizing a social-justice measure because it goes against their ability to discriminate freely; attorneys full of indignation because now you can stop them from acting against the dignity of their colleagues.

Exactly one year ago, I was sworn in as a lawyer and started to practice. Sadly, throughout these 12 months, I’ve been called things like 'baby' and 'little girl.'

I’m not going to give a lot of thought to those critics. But we have to be aware of one thing: Sexism, discrimination, and the way they manifest themselves against women are tools of the patriarchy. And patriarchy, as with any other oppressive system, guarantees that one community has privileges that it's not willing to give up that easily.

The discrimination and the harassment we encounter daily are tools used to make us feel smaller and to maintain a hostile environment. Their purpose is to make us understand that we’re not welcome in these spaces. But we, as women, keep fighting our way in and guaranteeing that we’re treated equally — the core of our fight is to make these places feel safer and more fair.

This new rule — which would penalize those who use sexist language — is not a guide for certain states to incorporate it into their respective codes if they please. It’s an order. This way, we can look at this issue in a serious way — so it can be documented and steps are taken to eradicate the problem.

And it’s finally a clear message that discrimination will not be tolerated in our profession and that equality is not an option. It's our duty.

There should be no doubts that discrimination against women is institutionalized in our field. Even if there were no statistics, anyone could go through a recap of legal news in any media outlet and see courageous colleagues denouncing the wage gap in big law firms, the humiliating treatment they suffer at the hands of male lawyers when in court, and how there’s a double standard with how they are treated versus other court employees.

What this measure also represents is a chance to discuss the topic of equality in this profession — among lawyers and in our judicial institutions — and an opportunity to be aware of the various ways that discrimination can manifest itself, ways that have been ignored before.

This new rule is also a way to empower our female colleagues to speak up whenever they find themselves being treated wrongly. It will open the path for equality — in a broad sense — to be discussed in ethics classes. Most importantly, it forces those of us who uphold the law to be introspective about the way we treat our colleagues and those whom we serve.

And it’s finally a clear message that discrimination will not be tolerated in our profession and that equality is not an option. It's our duty.

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