UH Sociologist Explores Sex Discrimination at Law Firms

Ironically, those who are most familiar with the legal system are unlikely to combat workplace sexual discrimination in the courtroom.

According to University of Houston sociology professor and attorney Amanda Baumle, lawyers rarely file lawsuits when faced with gender-based bias at their firms. Instead of taking their cases to court, some attorneys are heading to the Internet.

Baumle's recent book, "Sex Discrimination and Law Firm Culture on the Internet: Lawyers at the ‘Information Age Water Cooler,'" (Palgrave Macmillan) addresses how the Web has become a tool to address, challenge and argue gender inequities at law firms.

"People view lawyers as being very litigious," Baumle said. "So, one would think that they would immediately file a lawsuit if they were victims of sex discrimination. Because they're nested within a legal environment, lawyers are hesitant to sue. Their concern is that future employers will learn about such lawsuits and be reluctant to hire them. There are valid career risks when one decides to take on his or her own firm. Lawyers who do so are often viewed as troublemakers."

Still, lawyers do not always remain silent regarding workplace sex discrimination. The Internet has become a communication tool to shed light on gender-based prejudice or sexual harassment problems within law firms. It also has the potential to promote change through tempered yet anonymous discourse between lawyers.

For three years Baumle observed reports of such activities on the Web site GreedyAssociates.com. The site serves as a forum for lawyers and law students to anonymously discuss workplace conditions and topics such as salary inequities. Attorneys also use the site to discuss issues of sex discrimination and harassment. In doing so, they place their complaints within a legal framework, arguing that the practice violates a legal statute or is otherwise illegal - regardless of whether the alleged action is one that is currently prohibited by law. By using legal language and a reference to legal rights, the attorneys' claims have an air of legitimacy, which sometimes prompts a response by law firms, she said.

Some of the postings Baumle observed were focused on a law firm's layoffs. Online comments alleged that terminations were handled unfairly and that many female lawyers were retained due to attractiveness or other non-work related attributes. Responses were submitted by participants who claimed to be partners at the firm, defending it against such allegations.

Sometimes, newspapers and law journals have learned of such online allegations. As a result, law firms have addressed similar accusations publicly.

"Web communities are particularly helpful for attorneys," Baumle said. "The anonymity that the Internet provides helps those in the legal field expose such practices. More importantly, online exchanges have the potential to result in offline changes involving the way we define sex discrimination and what actions are permissible in the workplace."

In addition to her expertise in the sociology of law, Baumle's research is also focused on demography and social inequality. Other books by Baumle include "Same-Sex Partners: The Social Demography of Sexual Orientation" (co-authored with Dudley Poston and D'Lane Compton). She edited "Demography in Transition: Emerging Trends in Population Studies."

For more details on Baumle and the UH sociology department, visit http://www.class.uh.edu/sociology/, and to learn more about "Sex Discrimination and Law Firm Culture on the Internet: Lawyers at the ‘Information Age Water Cooler,'" visit http://us.macmillan.com/sexdiscriminationandlawfirmcultureontheinternet.

For more information about UH, visit the university's Newsroom at www.uh.edu/newsroom.