Show Up, Make Your Voice Heard
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.” This is a quote Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has used many times, and it is always inspirational. A big factor in equality is showing up and making your voice heard. In the past, women have not had the option to just “show up” and pull up a chair. Now, with the progress women are making toward equality in the workplace animated by recent activism germinated in January 2017, it looks like the table is finally getting bigger.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office opened in 1850, nearly 168 years ago. From 1850 to 2017, men led the office. Until the mid-to-late 1990’s, it was uncommon to even see women in the office wearing pants instead of skirts or dresses. Times are changing. In 2017, retired Judge Diana Becton became the first female to lead Contra Costa County’s District Attorney’s Office when she was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to serve out the term of Mark Peterson; Becton broke a double barrier as the first African American to lead the office. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office began in 1853. That office did not see a woman in the top position until 2009, when Nancy O’Malley became District Attorney. While it took too long to see gender diversity in leadership in these offices, the trend is heading there now. DA Nancy O’Malley and Kristen Busby, Deputy District Attorney at the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office since February 2013, weighed in on gender equality in their respective offices.
O’Malley began working at the Alameda County DA’s Office in 1984. When O’Malley started, she estimates only about 15% of the attorneys in the office were women, with only one woman in a supervisory position. This meant a long and sometimes challenging road to rise to the top. O’Malley recalls push back when she was appointed Chief Assistant DA in 1999, and again in 2009 when she became District Attorney. O’Malley attributes the resistance to a number of factors, several tied to her gender. She has always been a strong woman with plenty of energy. Some in the office took this strength and energy as self-promoting and overly ambitious; traits often lauded when exhibited by a man. During her time as Chief Assistant DA, O’Malley implemented trainings and procedures to address sexual harassment concerns in the office.
When O’Malley started, a two-drink lunch was not uncommon, especially amongst some of the older male staff. Those post-drinking lunch afternoons too often led to co-workers feeling put-off by the “liquid friendliness” exhibited by men towards their female colleagues. O’Malley made the decision to ban alcohol during the workday. She explained to her colleagues that what one person considers being “friendly” can come off to another person as intimidating. Many in the office appreciated this more professional approach, but not everyone. O’Malley remembers feeling that some thought she was the death of fun, and too serious to be an effective leader. However, O’Malley saw her commitment to professionalism, equality, and safety in the workplace as some of the keys to her success.
Equality in the Alameda DA’s office is no longer a distant dream. Today the number of female attorneys in the office is roughly equal to the number of male attorneys. Women account for roughly 40% of the people in supervisor positions. Additionally, women equally serve on the more gritty units, such as the teams prosecuting gang-related crimes and complex homicides.
Things look similar in the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office where almost half of the attorneys are women. Female supervisors currently only make up a small percentage of the total supervisors; however, DA Becton is working to change that. She has a female top assistant joining the office in early February and Phyllis Redmond was just announced as Chief of Staff. This represents the first time in the history of the county that women hold the top two jobs at the District Attorney’s Office. As Deputy District Attorney Busby points out, Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said, “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine” however, she does not think that is the goal for the District Attorney’s Office. Equality and diversity are extremely important traits for prosecutors. Busby emphasized that prosecutors serve victims of crime and their office should be demographically representative of the community it serves; diverse perspectives and experiences lead to better service to the community. Deputy district attorneys tend to change positions every three to four years, with newer attorneys switching more often. This creates opportunity for fluid and diverse teams.
With all this progress, there are still some setbacks and opportunities to improve. Busby shared her experience that many times, in trial, a jury will report they found her older, male opposing counsel more credible than her, even when she objectively outperformed him in the courtroom. This is a sentiment often heard from young, female litigators. It is staggering how many women share the experiences of gender bias in the courtroom and in chambers, from facing the assumption that she is the court reporter, to being called “honey” or “sweetheart” by opposing counsel. These external biases still exist, but are being slowly eroded by the policies and practices being implemented internally in many offices, the District Attorney’s offices included.
O’Malley’s examples of leadership suggest men can better support women to achieve equality by not letting their male peers get away with sexist, biased, and inappropriate comments or actions. It is not easy to call a peer out on bad behavior, but taking the uncomfortable step of doing so effects change. Writing off bad behavior as “locker room talk” or ignoring it allows a status quo to continue where women are not at the table but on the menu. We as lawyers must stand together against this status quo and report bad behavior to supervisors.
Equality is a team effort. When men advocate for equality and accept nothing less from their peers, women are empowered to show up and have their voices and ideas heard. There’s room at the table for everyone, and a good meal is best when enjoyed with friends.