At Inaugural Women’s Leadership Institute, Women Speak Up


“Silence has been critical to the oppression of women,” said the Honorable Jenny Rivera, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, during her keynote address at the inaugural Women’s Leadership Institute, held at Fordham Law School on Feb. 9. The daylong program featured numerous women in the legal profession who encouraged audience members to take risks and to speak up, for themselves and for each other.

Hon. Jenny Rivera

Hon. Jenny Rivera. Photo by Chris Taggart.

The morning portion of the program included discussions lead by Milana Hogan of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP about women’s use of grit and a growth mindset in the legal workplace and a session on negotiation skills led by Kathleen Walsh ’89, Andrea Schwartzman, Lilia Vazova, and Elizabeth Marks of Latham & Watkins.

Taking the stage in the afternoon, Judge Rivera called for everyone to speak out against any discrimination they experience or witness.

“It is we who are responsible for ensuring that every member of our society is treated equal under the law,” said Rivera, who applauded Fordham Law for fostering in its students a thirst for social justice. Sharing her own encounters with gender-based and race-based bias, she stressed how women—and especially women of color—continue to be underestimated and underappreciated in the workplace. Citing the #MeToo movement, she emphasized how breaking silence ruptures discriminatory ideologies.

“As more women share their experiences, we move the conversation from the experiences and viewpoint of the individual, who can easily be, and—as we all know—has been marginalized, to a discourse that considers how the individual’s experiences mirror a cultural normative reality,” she said.

The less pleasant realities of that cultural normativity were explored by Professor Rachel Godsil during her talk, which confronted the impact on women of implicit bias and stereotyping. According to Godsil and the social scientists with whom she works, implicit biases are the unconscious attitudes that affect a person’s thoughts and behaviors. An inevitable component of the human mind, this proclivity toward bias can be harmful when directed toward people.

“We categorize not only objects but people, and when we categorize people, that’s when it becomes potentially problematic,” said Godsil, who is professor of law and chancellor’s scholar at Rutgers Law School, in addition to being director of research and co-founder of the Perception Institute.

Godsil cited numerous studies to illustrate her point. For instance, she shared a 1997 study that found that, during auditions for an orchestra, women subject to blind reviews were 25–46% more likely to be hired than women whose sex was known by the judges. Godsil also shared various reinforcing examples of gender and racial stereotypes, including how law firms list 2.5 times more “male” qualities than “female” qualities on job applications, thus inhibiting women candidates from even applying; how professors respond less often to prospective doctoral students who are not-white and not-male; and how a Google image search for “mother lawyer” will show women holding babies, whereas “father lawyer” will show men opening firms with their adult sons.

Luckily, according to Godsil, one can eliminate one’s implicit biases if one recognizes them and if one is willing to change. “There may be well-intentioned people,” she said, “who are actually behaving in ways that aren’t consistent with their values, with their goals, and we can help them and the institutions that we’re part of, that they’re part of, actually align their behaviors with their values.”

The afternoon panel, “Women Leaders in the Law: Habits and Advice for Success,” drew together speakers who shared practical wisdom on how women can shape their own behaviors to meet their desires to advance their careers.

Jana Checa Chong ’09, Lisa Cleary, Kathryn Kolbert, Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard ’97, Carol Robles-Román, and Hopi Costello Ruplin '16

Jana Checa Chong ’09, Lisa Cleary, Kathryn Kolbert, Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard ’97, Carol Robles-Román, and Hopi Costello Ruplin ’16. Photo by Lindsey Pelucacci.

“To be an advocate for your clients you need to stick up for yourself,” said Lisa Cleary, co-chair and managing partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP. Encouraging women to stand up for themselves, the panelists emphasized the importance of networking, risk taking, asking for advice, and maintaining an active LinkedIn account.

“Toot your own horn,” said Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard ’97, vice president and associate general counsel at Viacom Media Networks and BET Networks.

In addition to Cleary and Sharif-Drinkard, the panelists included Jana Checa Chong ’09, senior intellectual property counsel at Louis Vuitton Americas; Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams ’66 director at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies; and Carol Robles-Roman, president and CEO of Legal Momentum. The event was organized by recent graduates Hopi Costello Ruplin ’16 and Molly Ryan ’15, presented by the Feerick Center for Social Justice and the Stein Center for Law and Ethics, and co-sponsored by Latham & Watkins LLP and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP,

The program’s closing remarks were given by the Honorable Cathy Seibel ’85, U.S. district judge of the Southern District of New York. She shared lessons she has learned in her life, including removing herself from people threatened by her success, and opening her mind to new and unexpected opportunities.

Like the speakers before her, Seibel reiterated the program’s main theme: Speak up. She emphasized that, if you want to be recognized for your hard work and earn a position you deserve, you need to be your own advocate.

“The lesson I learned is that other people are asking, so you better ask for it, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask,” said Seibel. “If you can make a substantive pitch in a humble way, you should go ahead and do it, because the competition is doing it, and you don’t want to be overlooked.”


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