Many minority female lawyers reported feeling undervalued and barred from advancing in their careers
Seventy percent of female lawyers of colour in the US are likely to seriously consider leaving the profession, a study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) has found.
Major factors that have precipitated this mindset include feeling undervalued and experiencing barriers to career advancement.
In their report Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color, Destiny Peery, Paulette Brown and Eileen Letts said that “nearly all” of the study’s 103 participants mentioned that they had “experienced bias and stereotyping during the course of their legal careers.”
“Our participants reported being aware of the stereotypes that are associated with their groups, and they acknowledged the tightrope they often have to walk to avoid confirming negative stereotypes that might adversely affect perceptions of their job performance,” Peery, Brown and Letts said.
“The bias that I face as a woman of colour has become the elephant in the room. It means that I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, subordinates, even after each success. Sometimes others assume that I am not a threat because they don’t see me as real contender for business or leadership roles,” one respondent said.
Based on the 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Study, women of colour make up about 14% of associates in the country, but only about a third make non-equity partner. Moreover, just a fourth make equity partner.
Despite the heightened focus on diversity and equality, the ABA study’s participants expressed that the industry continued to prioritise white men when it came to workplace opportunities.
“Our participants talked about the persistence of the “Old Boys’ Club” and the ways that affinity biases and the choice to invest in people like oneself continues to shut women, particularly women of colour, out of full participation and access in the legal workplace, leaving them looking in from the outside, lacking access to the resources and opportunities needed to thrive and succeed at the highest levels,” Peery, Brown and Letts said.
Respondents also indicated that strides in women’s law are often made by white women.
“I have watched white women not address intersectionality or issues of race as part of women’s initiatives and at times downplay them,” said one respondent.
Another respondent said that white women in power “often become similar to their male counterparts—they don’t necessarily go out of their way to promote other women and certainly not women of colour.”
Nonetheless, despite expressing that they have considered leaving the legal profession, Peery, Brown and Letts said that many female minority lawyers ultimately decided to stay for three main reasons: love of the work they do, financial reasons and because “aspects of their personal and familiar lives may require or encourage it.”
“Previous research has also shown that women of colour report having different work-life needs and challenges than white women, and these different needs and challenges do not fit the conceptions that law firms expect,” Peery, Brown and Letts said. “For example, women of colour were more likely than white women and men to report having extended family responsibilities, and Black women in particular were more likely to report participating in community activities as a personal responsibility.”
Many female minority lawyers also remain in order to serve as role models in their respective fields, given the lack of representation for women of colour in the industry.
“Research has shown the power of having gender- and race-matched role models and mentors available in educational and professional settings, and it is clear that younger people entering these spaces perform better and persist longer when they can see themselves in the more senior ranks,” Peery, Brown and Letts said. “Our participants both acknowledged that they mostly did not have this when they were younger attorneys, and this reinforced for them the importance of playing that role now that they had the ability to do so.”
The study presented the following recommendations on how the profession can better retain female lawyers of colour:
- adopting best practices to reduce biases in decision-making
- improving access to effective, engaged mentors and sponsors to limit barriers to career advancement
- going beyond diversity during recruitment and aiming for inclusion to improve retention
- incorporating an intersectional approach to addressing diversity and gender
- creating a more inclusive culture in the profession