Jaclyn Wong (left) is working on an update to Joan Feitler’s 1955 survey of women lawyers. (Photography by John Zich)

The more things change ...

Checking in on a groundbreaking master’s thesis more than a half century later.

In 1955, Joan Feitler, AM’55—Joan Elden at the time—wrote a sociology master’s thesis: “The Woman Lawyer: A Report.” She talked to 50 female lawyers in Chicago to conduct the first academic study of women in the legal profession. The study’s two goals were to “obtain a general sociological picture of women lawyers in Chicago” and to examine discrimination they might feel as women in the field.

In addition to general questions about their educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, Feitler asked: What are your thoughts about women lawyers as a group? Do women take the legal profession as seriously as men? Would you go into law if you had to do it over again? She also asked if the attorneys had felt discrimination at different stages of their careers, from law school admission to treatment by male lawyers, clients, and judges.

Sixty years later, Feitler expressed an interest in seeing the research updated and was pleased when Jaclyn Wong, AM’13, who wrote an undergraduate thesis at University of California, Irvine, on gender inequality and is working on a dissertation on gender inequality in dual-career couples, took on the project.

The two share their thoughts on the original research, the update, and how the profession has—or has not—changed, edited and adapted below.

What made you want to follow up on your original research now?

Feitler: I thought it would be interesting to see, since there was so much prejudice, how much improvement has there been in this 60-year period.

Was there anything that surprised either of you about the other’s findings, or about your own?

Feitler: Jaclyn’s research certainly reaffirmed the fact that there is still an enormous amount of prejudice.

Wong: In my sample, fewer women reported feeling discriminated against in law school and in early stages of their careers. The overt discrimination has somewhat subsided. But that doesn’t mean that the microaggressions and the differences in the type of work that women get versus what men get has changed. And it doesn’t mean that people still don’t experience straight-up harassment or unwelcome comments about their appearance. There’s a consistent story of “People don’t take me seriously at work because I’m a woman,” or “People think that because I’m a mother I’m not as committed to my job as the fathers in the firm.”

You each used different research methods: Joan, you actually went and interviewed each woman in person.

Feitler: Yes. I enjoyed it. I met with women who were all very receptive about wanting to talk about what they were doing.

Wong: For me it was more about Institutional Review Board limitations. The process of getting research approved might have changed over time. I think at the time that you were doing the interview, it was easier to look up how many women were in law.

Feitler: I don’t remember having a problem with that.

Wong: I definitely had a problem with that. I can’t access the bar association information without being a member myself, and I can’t be a member of the bar without having a JD. They’ve really changed the security of what information they’re willing to share with outsiders. What I did instead was translate the interview study into a survey study that could be put online. I circulated it through the Alliance for Women, an association of women lawyers in Chicago.

Some of the questions I updated for 2016 to give more context and address the growth of women in the profession since 1955. To reflect the growth in the number of women in the profession since then, I changed the question to ask whether the increased number of women has made the profession less effective, more effective, or made no difference. Other than that I asked exactly the same questions.

Joan, your study quoted one woman who said of other women lawyers, “If they want to go into a man’s field, they should practice like men. A woman lawyer must divorce herself from feminine attributes. ... [Women] whine, cry, and are poor losers.” What did you think of that at the time?

Feitler: I guess I thought it was worth saving.

Wong: I asked an open-ended question at the end of the survey: What advice would you give to a woman who is interested in starting a career in law? And a lot of the respondents said things like, “Develop a thick skin.” “It’s going to be hard: prepare yourself to hit all of these barriers.” It feels sort of the same, where Joan’s respondents said, “Toughen up. Be more like men.”

Feitler: I’m curious—Is this coming along as you would expect?

Wong: Some of it is surprising. The older women in my sample were less likely to report feeling discriminated against, compared to younger women.

Feitler: Where actually younger women have not faced as much formal discrimination, in terms of hiring and law school admissions—and just attitudes of other lawyers and judges.

Wong: Right. So what’s going on? Is it that younger cohorts are more observant of these behaviors or better able to recognize that this is discrimination? Or maybe they’re earlier in their careers, and they haven’t hit the point of minimizing any struggles or discrimination they might have faced.

Perhaps a woman who’s had a very successful career might choose not to remember some of that.

Wong: Like, “I made it, so it must have been fine.”

Feitler: Are there many women partners at prestige firms here now?

Wong: Today half of law school students are women, but only 20 percent of private practice partners are women, and only 18 percent of equity partners are women. Overall, women only make up 30 percent of practicing lawyers. So you see that attrition as you advance up the career ladder.

When you did your study, it said there had been studies about women in medicine but not about women lawyers.

Wong: My hunch on that is that health care can be seen as a little bit more feminine because it involves caring. So I can see why women might have entered the health care profession as doctors rather than nurses earlier than women entered law. Law is still regarded today as quite a masculine profession.

Feitler: That’s a quotable quote.

Wong: And that’s why law is still interesting to study, even today.