The topic of law and equality fascinated me at the recent Harvard Women’s Law Conference. During the conference, I was struck about how common some themes seem to be, particularly regarding advice to women on achieving equality.
There were multiple panels with powerful, successful lawyers. I listened to Elizabeth Holtzman, former US Congresswoman, talk about forming the women’s caucus in Congress and working towards the Equal Rights Amendment, Kim Keenan share stories about running for presidential positions and being the first female General Counsel for the NAACP, and Priscilla Smith use a southern accent while talking about being an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Justice and defending a pregnant woman who shot herself in the stomach. The keynote speaker was the Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris. She was inspirational and thought-provoking during her speech about being smart on crime and focusing on prevention. One example she used was cutting down on elementary school truancy in order to stem the tide of high school dropouts in San Francisco while she was the District Attorney.
Kamala Harris opened and closed her speech with a family quote: “You may be the first to do something, but make sure you are not the last.” If you are the first woman of color to be Attorney General of California or even the first in your family to attend college, make sure you are not the last. Support other women of color in their political aspirations; encourage your little sister or cousin to attend college.
One of the recurring themes of the day was the need to support other women, especially through mentoring. Many of the panelists spoke of the need to find a mentor to help you through your career path, but also reminded attendees to be mentors to others.
However, while mentoring is vital and can certainly help women navigate sectors dominated by men – such as corporate law firms and politics – it lacks a system’s analysis. Mentoring women helps to support individual change, especially in places of privilege; however, I do not think it goes far enough in impacting racial, economic and social change. It does not shake up the system or change an institution.
Women mentoring and supporting each other is a good way to build a strong foundation. But I’m not convinced actual parity and equality will be achieved only through mentoring. Women still need to form coalitions and advocate for systemic racial, economic and social change to achieve equality. What do you think? What advice have you received or heard about how women can achieve equality?