The relentless indignities of being a woman working for justice

These women lawyers, corrections officers, investigators are forced to deal with the endless and arbitrary misogyny of centuries-old institutions that need to change. Speaking out is the start.

Lais Borges/Mic; Getty Images
BySophia Laurenzi

Yosha Gunasekera stood in front of a judge and jury in a Manhattan courtroom, working one of her first trials as a public defender in the New York criminal justice system. She had carefully prepared her cross-examination for this witness. She felt ready. As a public defender, she knew that presentation mattered — that the jurors needed to see her as confident and capable. Her client’s fate depended on it.

And then the judge interrupted her.

Gunasekera had been phrasing her questions as statements with an interrogative intonation at the end, just as she’d been taught to do in law school. The judge insisted her questioning technique was wrong. He berated her in front of the jury — not once, but twice. The second time he raised his voice to yell.

Frustrated, Gunasekera tried to rephrase her questions on the fly. But she knew that, in being made to look incompetent, the judge had upended the jury’s trust in the arguments she needed to make. She didn’t want her client to lose faith in the defense team. So Gunasekera, a first-generation Sri Lankan American, asked her colleague, a white male, to cross-examine the witness using exactly the same tone and style that had earned her a rebuke. The judge didn’t say a thing. “It felt very humiliating,” Gunasekera says. “I know what I was doing wasn’t incorrect.”

Gunasekera’s experience isn’t unique. Women currently make up 28% of the correctional staff and 38% of lawyers in the U.S. — a minority, yes, but a growing one. In 1970, women made up only three percent of lawyers in the U.S.; today, women account for more than half of ABA-approved law school enrollees. And yet, doing their job requires navigating a rigid, centuries-old, male-created and -dominated system while suffering an institutionalized onslaught of indignities small and large, personal and professional. They're told by judges to calm down. They’re saddled with arbitrary rule enforcement that keeps them from doing their jobs. They field sexualized comments from colleagues and adversaries alike.

The result is that these women — lawyers, social workers, correctional officers, and investigators, all advocating for or watching over others in their charge — are forced to waste precious time and energy advocating for themselves. They're constantly reminded of their gender.

The risks of pushing back can hurt their careers, but as the number of women working in the legal field grows, more are finding ways to resist a system that expects compliance.

“It’s death by a million cuts.”

I understood Gunasekera’s frustrations because I’ve experienced them myself. When I started working as a capital defense investigator, I’d already spent enough time in prisons to know how I’d be seen as a young woman. During one of my first visits to a California prison — as a volunteer with a program that taught coding and job readiness to incarcerated men — I carefully chose my clothing to meet the strict dress code. The prison’s policy banned almost every color, so I donned black slacks (my “job interview” pants) with an oversized white blouse. But when I arrived at the prison entrance, the correctional guard stopped me. The pants weren’t pant-like enough. The guard — who, to my knowledge, did not moonlight as a fashion critic — considered them leggings.

There is no court of appeals for a correctional guard’s arbitrary ruling on pants tightness, so I ran to my car and drove to the closest Target to buy black, baggier pants in something close to my size. They looked almost identical to the pants I’d arrived in, but when I returned, the staff let me through the gate.

By the time I started investigating death penalty cases full-time in Louisiana and Tennessee, I learned to keep a spare set of clothes and shoes in my car whenever I scheduled a prison visit. What I wore to see a client one week might not be acceptable the next. In my more than two years working behind prison walls, I never saw a man have to change his clothes — for any reason, let alone to do his job.

I did, however, constantly modulate my speaking voice to thread the needle between demure and professionally confident. And I learned to appear unfazed as I took on the brunt of emotional labor in my cases, from sending clients birthday cards to conducting interviews about sexual trauma. I watched women colleagues — investigators, paralegals, and attorneys alike — similarly manage the pressure of flawless presentation on top of the stress of high-stakes work.

Women who work adjacent to the justice system face these biases, too. In July 2022, reporter Ivana Hrynkiw made national news when Alabama prison officials attempted to bar her as a media witness to Joe Nathan James’s execution because her skirt was too short — despite the fact that she’d worn the same skirt to witness several executions before. (The Alabama Department of Corrections did not return Mic’s request for comment.)

Media witnesses like Hrynkiw serve as critical watchdogs over the secrecy throughout the prison system, especially when it comes to executions. Barring women from prisons because of their clothes not only threatens defendants’ access to legal representation, it also diminishes public information about what goes on inside prison walls.

When women attorneys transition from their work inside prisons to their work in the courtroom, they often over-prepare for cases and take great care to present themselves within a narrow framework of acceptability — knowing that if they don’t walk the right line, they might be penalized for assertive communication or mistaken for defendants, bailiffs, or janitors. “It’s death by a million cuts,” says Michaela, a public defender in a Southern city who asked that Mic withhold her last name.

In cases where judges have discretion over decisions like suspended sentences, Michaela says she sometimes asks male colleagues to petition the judges on her behalf. She knows doing so will likely yield a better result for her client. “[It’s] solely on me being a woman and not having that good ol’ boy relationship with that judge,” she says.

Many of the women I spoke with also described patterns of being told to calm down when expressing confidence and emotion while working their cases. A “bulldog personality” can often result in reprimands and claims of insubordination from judges, who remain overwhelmingly male and white. Those kinds of comments make women appear less capable in a setting where competency is essential.

They also take a toll on women’s longevity in the industry. A 2021 study by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar found that 25% of female attorneys were considering leaving the legal field because of mental health issues, stress, and burnout, compared to 17% of men.

These biases impact not only women lawyers, but also the people they represent. According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, people who believe the criminal justice system is fair are less likely to reoffend. The inverse is equally true. “If you're sitting in a courtroom, charged with the crime, and the person who is supposed to be your defender is being unfairly and unjustly attacked by the judge, you're not going to believe that this is a fair system,” says Laura Cohen, an attorney and law professor in New Jersey.

It puts women attorneys in an impossible situation. Even when they do their jobs well, their work is at risk of being undermined by subjective perceptions over which they have little control. And yet, speaking out against these discriminations adds another layer of possible consequences for the lawyers and their clients. Challenging a judge and risking their wrath can mean harsher decisions for clients, like setting a higher bail or refusing to grant probation in lieu of incarceration.

“It’s not only you [who] could be hurt,” Michaela says. “But a really vulnerable person who’s relying on you to help them could also be hurt. And that’s the much scarier part.”

“It’s absolutely not normal in any workplace to see pornography.”

When Dawn Brown first started working as a correctional officer (CO) in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2005, she says one of her superiors, a lieutenant, wanted a romantic relationship. Brown rejected his advances, and soon after the alleged retaliations began. One day Brown says she walked into the women’s restroom to find her name painted next to a sexual slur. She called HR immediately to report the incident.

While Brown waited three hours for HR to arrive, the maintenance team came to the bathroom to do some painting. They covered each stall in black paint, including the one with Brown’s name. Finally, a representative from HR arrived. They told Brown they didn’t see anything. “The paint was still sticky,” Brown says. “They could see that they actually covered it up.”

Brown left the department in 2015 and filed an employment discrimination lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and years of retaliatory actions against her as a result of reporting the harassment. When reached by Mic, the Pennsylvania DOC said they do not comment on active litigation, but referred me to this 2002 management directive that outlines Pennsylvania’s prohibition of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as the state’s current guide to reporting sexual harassment as an employee.

Women who work full-time in carceral settings, like COs and prison social workers, are subject to a unique set of aggressions and barriers. Despite the growing rate of women working in corrections, it remains an understaffed profession with low wages and high turnover rates. Not only are women in the minority, but the secrecy and abuse that permeate the U.S. prison system create a hostile workplace for female employees. “You are not equal at all,” Brown says. “You have to prove yourself over and over and over again.”

As in many industries, the negative treatment is often compounded for women of color. “I was only one of two Black employees in the entire state prison,” says Kelley Bonner, who worked as a social worker at New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility from 2006 to 2009. “Being a woman of color influenced every aspect of my job. I often felt minimized. I was sexually harassed.”

On one occasion, Bonner says she went to use the bathroom in the special housing unit, where inmates were kept in solitary confinement. When she stepped inside, she found the bathroom covered with pornography depicting Black women, which COs had allegedly seized from the inmates and collected in the staff bathroom. Bonner recalls them laughing when she came out. “It’s absolutely not normal in any workplace to see pornography,” Bonner says. “It’s a fireable offense. But when you work in those environments…you lose the ability to tell what’s really bad.”

When asked for comment, the DOCSS shared its policy that “Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and an unlawful employment practice. DOCCS has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace and provides no latitude for the instigation of sexual harassment. Every employee is entitled to work in an environment free from sexual harassment and its negative economic, psychological, and physical effects.”

The build-up of these negative effects during her employment left Bonner feeling numb and traumatized. “I stopped being an agent for change and started being a voyeur of people’s suffering,” she says. Bonner eventually left prison work behind; her experience inspired her to start a consulting company to improve workplace wellness and prevent burnout, especially for women and people of color.

“[The criminal justice system] is built on taking advantage of the powerless instead of empowering people,” Bonner says. It isn’t only the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S. whose power is stripped away; it’s also the people — especially women — who work alongside them.

It's work that needs to be done.”

Despite the setbacks, the justice system as a whole is edging its way toward change. And as they have done for centuries, women are at the forefront of reform. Across the legal and criminal justice fields, the number of women professionals are growing — even in the slow-changing judiciary. Women are finding ways to speak out and continue their important work. “It's still work that I love doing and I would get up and do it every single day, even if nothing changed, because it's work that needs to be done,” Michaela says. “It's work that I really care about.” For many, the passion and leaning on community support help mitigate the toll of working in the system — though there’s no question that the system needs an overhaul.

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced change from a typically static system. Adjustments like virtual prison visits and remote court hearings have allowed a level of flexibility that didn’t exist before. Though this kind of latitude is no fix for the entrenched gender biases women experience, it’s a step in reimagining what this work can look like.

Meanwhile, organizations like the Women in Criminal Justice Task Force are working to improve the legal workplace by increasing access to mentors, training, and resources — as well as researching and documenting the challenges women face. They found, in particular, that increasing access to meaningful mentorship is crucial in improving women’s criminal justice careers. In October, the University of Wisconsin launched the first female mentorship program for college students interested in justice careers, which could shift the culture as younger women enter the workforce. And though mentorship programs for law students are more common, access to mentorship during a woman’s career isn’t as structured.

As women’s representation grows, both in numbers and voice, the institutions that govern the legal and carceral systems will be forced to evolve — to become more equitable, just, and transformative for everyone they touch.

In the meantime, Bonner shares some advice that she learned, though not until after she left her role as a prison social worker. Back then, she defined her success by whether or not she prevented something bad from happening on a given day. Now, she recognizes that a better gauge — one designed to protect emotional and mental well-being — would have been to ask herself if she showed up compassionately for her patients. “If I did that, I did something meaningful,” she says. “I made an impact.”