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Under Pressure: Lawyering for Gender Justice

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Today, there are many efforts to roll back civil rights laws in education, health care and the workplace. At the 2019 Colorado Women’s Bar Association Convention, keynote speaker Sunu Chandy discussed a number of efforts to fight back, including litigation by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), as well as the creation of the NWLC’s Legal Network for Gender Equity and TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.

A longtime civil rights advocate, Ms. Chandy is currently the Legal Director of the Washington, D.C.-based NWLC. Until 2017, she served as the Deputy Director for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she enforced laws involving language access, services and aids to individuals with disabilities, and sex discrimination cases under the Affordable Care Act. She also held the General Counsel position with the D.C. Office of Human Rights, in addition to being a federal attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for 15 years.

NWLC was established 45 years ago to fight for gender justice, taking on issues that are central to the lives of women and girls, including workplace justice, education, health care, reproductive rights, income security, and sexual harassment. NWLC’s most recent participatory research projects have addressed the mental health resource needs of Latina girls in Philadelphia schools and the disproportionate enforcement of dress codes on black girls in the D.C. public school system. NWLC has also brought three lawsuits against the federal government under the Administrative Procedures Act relating to Title IX, birth control access and equal pay data collection initiatives.

In April 2019, NWLC won a battle against the Trump Administration that attempted to block an Obama-era equal pay data collection initiative that required large employers to report pay data by race, ethnicity, gender and job category. This pay data was a supplement to workforce demographic data that large private employers and federal contractors already had been reporting to the EEOC. The purpose of the pay data collection was to encourage employers to conduct a self-audit so that they could identify and proactively correct pay disparities. In March 2019, a D.C. federal district court judge found that the OMB failed to properly justify its stay of the pay data collection initiative, ordering its reinstatement. It is victories like these that hold government agencies accountable and provide equal access to justice.

Besides impact litigation, Ms. Chandy has aggressively promoted legislation against sex and gender discrimination, testifying in support of H.R. 5—the Equality Act—before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in April. The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and the jury system. While the House passed H.R. 5 on May 17, it is not expected to be taken up in the Senate. Although passing the bill was not possible in the current legislative climate, Ms. Chandy sees the House vote as a huge step toward the ultimate goal of prohibiting discrimination against the LGBTQ community. “It was the work of decades and I’m so excited that I got to be there for this part of it.”

So what advice does she have for local advocates?

Ms. Chandy expressed how important it is to develop alliances in the battle for civil rights and gender equality. For example, it is important to have men at the table in the #MeToo Movement. People of all genders need to speak up against oppression and workplace harassment.

According to Ms. Chandy, the key to being a good ally is to grow authentic trusting relationships. “As a national women’s rights group, when we go to do local grass roots work, we have to be cognizant of the perceived power and the power that is there. That’s what I think of when I think about men, allies, or white folks focusing on racism. It’s necessary, but we have to be careful and thoughtful. As much as we can, we need to have the people impacted leading the way, but we also need allies to speak up.”

We agree, and thank her for her work.


Veronique Van Gheem is Senior Assistant Legal Counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department. Ms. Van Gheem works in the Executive Division of the State Court Administrator’s Office providing general advisory counsel for the Colorado courts, probation departments and the State Court Administrator. She is a Chair of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Publication Committee. She is also a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and a Lead Attorney for the Project Safeguard Spanish-speaking Family Law Clinic. Any views or opinions reflected in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Office of the State Court Administrator or the Colorado Judicial Department.

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