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One of Bellows’s key accomplishments during the course of her 12-month tenure was the establishment of the ABA’s Gender Equity Task Force, charged with publishing four groundbreaking pamphlets on how to tackle the gender disparity in the legal profession head-on, from helping women advocate for themselves to making sure they receive equal pay at their firms. According to a 2012 NAWL Foundation study, women attorneys make up 45% of associates in the nation’s 200 largest law firms, yet their number is reduced dramatically as they move up the ladder: Only 15% of equity partners are women.
“Nobody was talking about it,” Bellows said. “We now have campaigns at all the state and local bars to speak about these issues. The very fact that the barriers persist and nobody was being vocal about this issue was a problem.”
Bellows’s focus on gender equity took on a special meaning, given that this year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The legislation, signed by President Kennedy, made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages when men and women perform substantially equal work. Bellows has been a strong proponent of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would prohibit employers from punishing employees for sharing salary information with their co-workers. An update to the Equal Pay Act, the bill would protect employees who seek to learn about wage disparities in their workplaces and to evaluate whether they are experiencing wage discrimination.
“People don’t believe there is a pay gap; they just don’t believe it exists — that it’s all in our heads,” said Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. Chanow said that even the ABA’s male members get defensive when the issues of unequal pay are raised.
Chanow applauds Bellows’s advocacy, which she said comes “at a great personal risk. When you are not in the ‘good girl’ stereotype, it’s easy to be marginalized and dismissed. To use the bully pulpit she’s on and really push forth these incredibly important issues facing women is a stunning example for us all.”
Meredith Mandell is a New York-based freelance journalist for the New York Times, The New York Observer, WNYC radio and others.