Manely Firm - May 2020

Al l fami ly law. Al l around Georgia. Al l around the wor ld.

M ay 2020

S tanding U p for W orking M others The Unfai r Bias They Face in the Courtroom

When I say working mothers often face a strong bias in court, many mothers already know this fact. This bias is especially strong because many people inside the court system set a mother’s maternal role to very high standards — often unrealistically so. Mothers find themselves pitted against biased judges and jurors who use preconceived notions about a woman’s maternal role to sometimes leave them worse off than they were, even when they’re doing everything in their power to care for their children. Mothers certainly face an uphill battle because of expectations that remain from years ago. Many people expect mothers to portray the same characteristics as the television character June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver” despite the additional demands stemming from myriad circumstances, like mothers who also work a full-time job. From what I’ve seen, judges can perceive a mother as too successful and punish her for it, particularly if her husband has missed the mark over the course of their marriage. It’s as if they feel pity for the man’s relative flaws and may decide that the woman isn’t “motherly” enough. Mothers walk a very fine line of having to be self-sufficient and a devoted parent, to the exclusion of all else. About 10 years ago, there was an attorney in an outlying county where country and suburban intersect. This fellow lost case after case of mothers losing custody in front of a particular judge. He wanted us to solve this seemingly intractable problem. The first time we went out to take a look at things and figure out why this kept happening, we realized what the problem

was. He would tell his clients to dress well for court, and they’d arrive on the day well groomed and looking very professional. However, this judge was such a terrible misogynist that this was all it took for them to lose custody. “Women shouldn’t be professional,” this judge thought. “Women should be motherly.” The best way to help mothers push back against these biases is to soften their appearances. A large part of court is about the production, so we quite intentionally “soften” these mothers to shift the perspective. Our goal is to re-create the character of June Cleaver, complete with a dress and pearls. In any other context, this practice would be offensive, but we have to confront this way of thinking as best we can. In the past, I used to believe that only older judges viewed mothers in this way, but too many of the newer judges carry this bias as well.

In each of our cases, bias is something we keep an eye out for. It is an essential part of the conversations we have with our clients. Whether these biases are rooted in race, nationality, gender, or something else, it’s our job to tell our clients about the ugly truths they’re facing. Often, I’ve found that even while being grateful that we’re willing to be that direct with them, they’re already fully aware of the biases they face. They know better than we do because they’ve been living it for most or all of their lives. Even so, we want to have these conversations to work toward ameliorating these biases. We know how frustrating bias can be, especially when your best interests rest with your children. If you’re ever in a situation where you feel as though you’re fighting an uphill battle, don’t give up. We’re here to help you make it to the top. –Michael Manely 1

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