On March 5, Fordham Law Women held its third annual symposium, focusing this year’s event on issues important to women in general and to women in the law, through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. A panel of scholars and practitioners explored a range of topics related to COVID’s impact on women in the workforce, on marginalized women, and on access to justice, in light of the ongoing pandemic.
Pressures Build on Women in the Legal Profession
Adjunct Professor Lisa Teich moderated the first discussion, exploring ways in which the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities for women and exposed vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems. Panelists included Naomi Cahn, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Law, Nancy L. Buc ’69 Research Professor in Democracy and Equity, and Family Law Center director at the University of Virginia School of Law; Poonam Kumar, partner at DLA Piper LLP; Dr. Nicole Mason from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; Linda McClain, Robert Kent Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law; and Stephanie Scharf, partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC.
The panelists discussed how female attorneys—particularly those working in large law firms—have seen their home and work lives blend together while taking care of young and elderly family members. They also added that the feelings of being overwhelmed and pressure to keep up with responsibilities has exponentially increased, leading to burnout and disengagement at work.
“I also think this pandemic kind of showed us that even with flexible hours, even with … good salary jobs, and supportive partners, women will end up taking a big brunt of this type of work,” Kumar said. “Something bigger needs to change.”
Dr. Mason pointed out that some women, however, are experiencing inflexibility at the workplace. “We’re getting to a place where we realize it’s not an individual problem or a family problem,” she said. “It’s a systemic and structural problem that has gone unaddressed for many, many, many years—decades even.”
One solution, Scharf argued, is that organizations, including law firms, could reframe who they are and how they want to move forward. “How are we going to keep our people trained?” she rhetorically posed. “How are we going to allow the flexibility in work time that many people want? How are we going to keep people engaged in this enterprise that we call a law firm and keep the culture that we want to have?”
Examining Disparities Among Marginalized Women
To discuss disparities among marginalized communities, Fordham Law Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Director Kamille Dean spoke with Amanda McRae, director of UN Advocacy at Women Enabled International, COVID + Disabilities; Sahar Moazami ’17, United Nations program officer at OutRight Action International; and Seema Mohapatra, associate professor and dean’s fellow at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
Mohapatra said that while the infectious nature of COVID-19 emphasized how we are all interconnected—regardless of race, class and immigration status—structural discrimination has impacted some people’s abilities to shelter at home and seek medical care (including COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccinations).
McRae explained how her group received reports from people with disabilities around the world who have not been able to access clean water and food due to lack of income, accommodatable transportation, and accessible information. Government social assistance programs—which may not even exist in some locations—as well as disability barriers (like inaccessible applications or possessing identification cards that say you’re a person with a disability) have been critical hurdles.
The pandemic also exacerbated disparities within the LGBTIQ community. Challenges faced by LGBTIQ people, as OutRight Action International reported in May 2020, include devastation of livelihoods, elevated risk of domestic and family violence, societal discriminations, and abuse of state power. Moazami said that, while there can be a change of law, implementation may take longer to occur.
“What allies can do is really take the conversation beyond legal and policy change and have more discussions around where do these experiences of violence and discrimination come from?” Moazami said. “How can we actually have a robust conversation—not only about changing anti-discrimination or implementing anti-discrimination laws in statute, but also going into homes of having these conversations; having them in workplace?”
However, the disability community has found silver linings in the pandemic, like developing new peer-to-peer support systems across borders and across languages. “[It’s] bringing people together in these Zoom rooms to see each other and to speak to each other from their homes where they’re otherwise really socially isolated … sharing some of the experiences that they have,” McRae said.
Finding New Ways to Help
The final panel focused on the pandemic’s impact on the response to intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and access to the justice system. The conversation was moderated by Amy Barasch, executive director at Her Justice, and featured Hamra Ahmad, director of law & policy at Her Justice; Cindy Kanusher, executive director of Women’s Justice Center; Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women; Darlene Reda, program administrator at the Westchester County Office for Women; and Honorable Joy Watson, Nassau County District Court.
Mehra explained her team quickly called survivors of domestic violence, implementing immediate safety plans and reviewing what it means to shelter in place (especially for those living with a person who inflicts harm). “Early on in those conversations, what was coming up were orders of protection being violated,” she said. “We saw a greater number of those who are inflicting harm, forcing their way back into the house. We saw COVID being used as a mechanism for power and control.”
Judge Watson, who was one of the first judges to conduct arraignments remotely, explained she had an inventory of 475 cases before the pandemic. By the beginning of March 2021, that number nearly doubled to 930 cases. “Managing that is extremely difficult, but the good news is that from the very beginning the courts were not completely closed,” Judge Watson said. “We were outfitted with laptops within a matter of days after the pandemic hit, which gave us the opportunity to do conferencing [and]gave us the opportunity to have a link to the jails.”
Kanusher noted the digital divide later kept people from accessing the courts when they began operating again. So, the Women’s Justice Center worked with five Westchester churches, providing free technology for people to use in those spaces to privately meet with legal service providers. “It was a whole other level of work we weren’t necessarily always involved with,” Kanusher said. “It was really important for us to be able to work with our partners in the community to help us help our clients with those needs.”
Similar to Kanusher’s situation, Reda said her center extended their hours to be more available for clients, contractors, and victims.
“[Law enforcement] also wanted advice while they were at the scene, so we couldn’t just stick with our 9-5 hours. We really had to be more available,” she explained, saying her team shared their personal phone numbers with police chiefs.
“All the agencies that we work with stepped up [and]everyone really went above and beyond to really serve the victims. I’m just really proud to be a part of that.”