In this year of racial reckoning in our country, a recent American Bar Association (ABA) report reaffirmed what many of us in the legal profession already know: women of color are significantly underrepresented in law firms and face major obstacles to remaining practicing attorneys. The substantial challenges that accompany the practice of law (long hours, aggressive opponents, extreme stress) are only compounded by racial and gender barriers for women of color. The result? According to the report, women of color have the highest rate of attrition from law firms.
Little progress has been made in this area, either, despite years of discussion and effort. While other industries have seen somewhat respectable increases in the number of minority female leaders in their organizations, women of color still comprise only 2% of equity partners at large law firms in the United States—a figure that has remained static for nearly 20 years.
The ABA report, “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color,” recounts anecdotes of the challenges faced by those living, and working, at the intersection of sex and race. Navigating identity-based bias in the legal workplace is often so difficult that the vast majority (70%) of female minority lawyers participating in the study reported having either left the profession or had considered leaving altogether.
The authors of the study sought to survey and interview women of color in practice for more than 20 years. When their search for participants (tellingly) yielded such few respondents that the findings would be rendered statistically insignificant, researchers instead recruited women of color who graduated from law school 15 or more years prior.
The 103 participants, who completed online surveys or shared in small focus groups, were asked questions that elicited narratives describing their experiences as women of color in law firms, as well as the unique factors that influenced their career decisions.
Reading the narratives is heart-wrenching and, at times, angering. One participant explained her experience of the “black tax,” referring to the unspoken requirement that she “demonstrate outsized achievements just to get the same opportunities” as non-minority counterparts. Another described the bias she faces as a woman of color as the “elephant in the room.” She said, “It means that I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, subordinates, even after each success.”
Another respondent stated that she was viewed “not just a pushy woman, but an aggressive black woman.” When she suggested a new path, she was described as “argumentative” even if she was offering helpful feedback. But, she said, “If I stayed quiet, I wasn’t adding value.” Respondents also stated their hair and clothing choices were often scrutinized. Others recalled being mistaken for support, janitorial, or courtroom staff. The assumption they were legal counsel was not afforded to them in the same fashion it was to their non-minority male colleagues.
Even compliments were often described as stinging: one lawyer recalls frequently hearing “You’re so articulate!” and “You speak so well!” While she appreciated compliments, she wondered, “but is anyone surprised when white people know how to string together a sentence?” Another respondent described the constant battle “with assumptions of inferiority, intellectual or otherwise,” and the repeated need to “prove [her]self no matter how senior or qualified or experienced…” “[T]his is something my white male peers do not have to do,” she said. “It is psychologically exhausting.”
Despite these harrowing experiences, some of the women that have remained in the legal profession did so because their passion for the practice of law was greater than the negative experiences they faced. Many endured the experiences because they simply needed the income to care for themselves or their dependents.
Those remaining in practice feel a responsibility to future generations. One respondent stated that “it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. But I keep going because I know that this is a path that we are all paving for the women of color who come after us. We are doing this for ourselves and for our daughters (and sons).”
How Should Law Firms Respond?
The authors made several recommendations that firms should consider adopting to combat the double-edged sword of racial and gender bias. The threshold recommendation is to adopt practices aimed at reducing bias in decision-making by examining who is making decisions, how they are making decisions, and whether these decisions adequately consider the potential for biases.
Another important recommendation is to improve access to effective and engaged mentors and sponsors. While networking and mentorship happen naturally for many of their white-male counterparts over lunch, during drinks after work, or at other social events, minority women are not often included in these extracurricular social engagements. Hence, extra effort must be taken to ensure access to sponsors that will engage mentees and be invested in creating positive career outcomes for them.
The researchers also suggested adopting an intersectional approach to address both gender and other kinds of diversity, rather than inclusion initiatives that focus only on one aspect of diversity at a time. To do otherwise, they argue, often misses the nuances presented by gender and race interacting together. For example, there is a gender pay gap across the board, but when analyzed by race, the gap greatly increases for women of color.
Finally, while the study encourages firms to have well-drafted personnel policies that necessitate inclusion, employers must confirm that the policies are not mere lip service and are actually achieving the intended goal of creating a culture that encourages the success of women of color. One way employers could do this is by taking a periodic anonymous survey of employees to get a sense of their impressions first-hand.
This report, like many events of this year, reminds us that considerable work remains to be done at the intersection of race and gender, both in the legal profession and beyond. We encourage all employers to meaningfully evaluate how their businesses attract and retain women of color. Talk with employees, undertake a review and revision of policies, and engage a consultant to interview your workforce to understand the obstacles and dynamics impacting women of color in your business.
Let’s all ensure that no one is left behind. Please contact us today if we can help in this process.