Don’t Forget About Women Lawyers of Color

[For Black History Month, we invited some of our alumni to provide their reflections as guest bloggers of the month. This post is from Kristen D. Hardy L’14.]

When probing and prodding at the legal profession’s existential, ever-persisting diversity and inclusion (D&I) crisis, race and gender are routinely discussed in separate vacuums. Thus, inclusion efforts focusing on the improvement of gender diversity have largely come to consider only one subset of women — the majority. Similarly, inclusion efforts targeting racial diversity also tend to focus on the majority, which in most cases refers to men. Articles and conferences promising to break down barriers and unpack bias for women lawyers either completely ignore, or barely mention, the added layer of complexity for women lawyers of color. And without the voices of minority women attorneys, spaces promising to offer diverse perspectives begin to feel homogeneous and exclusive.

There is no denying that many women, regardless of race or background, share similar instances of gender bias and discrimination. But women of color must grapple with a separate set of unique challenges that remain largely disregarded. When the D&I conversation shifts to improving gender diversity, the challenges associated with women of color are frequently, perhaps unintentionally, ignored. Consequently, solutions intended to eliminate barriers for all women in the profession are falsely presented as equally effective for White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous women. This phenomenon is not only isolating, but arguably detrimental to the progression of minority women within the legal profession.

Double-Bind and Double-Barreled Bias

Most know, at least anecdotally, about the double-bind bias apropos to women in leadership. This type of implicit bias is a haphazard blend of gender stereotypes and ostensible leadership characteristics that gum together to form what feels like a catch-22 for women. The double bind suggests that the traditional gender roles of women are at odds with the necessary attributes of a good leader. In fact, women who demonstrate traditional leadership characteristics, such as assertiveness or confidence, are often viewed as less likable by both men and women. Therein lies the double bind.

In addition to this double bind, a less dissected bias affects women of color specifically: double-barreled bias. Double-barreled bias often rears its ugly head via a myriad of tired tropes and stereotypes: Black/African-American women are regularly pegged as angry or shrill when they become expressive; Latinas are similarly stereotyped as quick tempered and excitable; Asian women are viewed as passive or invisible; and the crude list continues.

As a Black woman, I know both forms of bias well. Many women have grown accustomed to quieting their voices and controlling their facial expressions in an attempt to avoid the seemingly inevitable accusation of anger. Others are overly critical of their own conservative clothing, subconsciously thwarting situations, real or imagined, that may welcome objectification. Colleagues regularly share instances of being mistakenly identified as defendants, rather than attorneys, in court. Friends discuss being regularly undermined by staff members — whether this is a symptom of ageism, sexism, or racism remains unknown — and accused of lacking professionalism due to their natural hairstyles.

These stereotypes inevitably create an added layer of implicit or unconscious bias that contributes to a dearth of women of color in the legal profession, particularly in leadership positions. Because double-barreled bias is discussed infrequently, its negative effects persist, much to the detriment of women attorneys of color. And if women attorneys of color are fortunate enough to become leaders within organizations, they are likely forced to contend with double-bind and double-barreled bias. This is conceivably why many women of color become disinterested in leadership positions. For disabled women and women of different sexual orientations, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, bias is even more nuanced and complex.

So why do these distinctions matter? When the legal profession fails to prioritize the individual and nuanced experiences of all women, women attorneys of color suffer the most.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

In 2017, women lawyers were seeing advancement in terms of partnership and leadership opportunities. However, minority women enjoyed much less success than their white women colleagues — a mere 2.8 percent of equity partners in Big Law were women of color, compared to 20.6 percent of all women (a 4.6 percent increase since 2007). Ouch.

In fact, women of color continue to be one of the most marginalized groups in the legal profession. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, “minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, a pattern that holds across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions” despite the increase in representation of all women lawyers in recent years. Minority women make up a meager 8.08 percent of U.S. firm lawyers (compared to 35.7 percent of all women and 16 percent of all minorities), and only 20 percent of minority women comprised the summer associates’ classes of firms nationwide (compared to 51 percent of all women and 35 percent of all minorities, as of 2018).

And while the number of minority women at firms has increased over the past 10 years, the growth is slow, infinitesimal, and remains bleak, comparatively. When analyzing the data by race, Asian women have seen the most gains within law firms, reporting a 1.52 percent increase in associates and a 0.62 percent increase at the partner level since 2009. The amount of Hispanic women in law firms has grown by 0.45 percent for associates and 0.33 percent for partners between 2009 and 2018. And Black/African-American women remain one of the most underrepresented groups, reporting only a 0.38 percent increase at the associate level and a 0.11 percent increase at the partner level since 2009. But for all women, the numbers for associates and partners have remained relatively consistent — 45 percent of associates identified as women between 2009 and 2018, and partners who identified as women increased by 4 percent.

When firms and corporations discuss diversity and inclusion, the data is frequently an amalgamation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. But data points lacking granularity tell only a portion of an organization’s D&I story. A firm touting 50 percent gender diversity among its partners sounds promising, until you realize this data point disproportionately benefits only one group of women.

While we celebrate the strides of all women within the profession, it is troubling to see so few of them being women of color. And it is even more unsettling when you consider the dismal gender wage gap, particularly for Indigenous, Black/African-American, and Hispanic women, who are paid between $0.53 and $0.61 for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. That is between $0.16 and $0.24 less than white women, who are typically paid $0.77 for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

For women attorneys of color, this information is commonplace. These disparities have been dissected and discussed — everywhere from formal think pieces to informal happy hours — to the point of exhaustion. And yet, the paucity of minority women lawyers persists. While the legal profession has made some progress, it isn’t nearly enough. The profession is long overdue for an overhaul of its D&I efforts.

Reframing Inclusion Efforts

In addition to formal implicit-bias training that speaks specifically to the challenges minority women lawyers face, firms should consider taking their inclusion efforts a step further. A potential solution is to address the needs and concerns of women lawyers of color individually and separately from the “all women” or “all minorities” categories. The same can be done when reporting diversity statistics. Care must also be taken to ensure minority women are not viewed as a monolith — Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Hispanic women deal with different forms of cultural bias.

National organizations, such as the Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC), recognize the unique challenges associated with women lawyers of color and are dedicated to speaking to this subset during annual conferences. It is important for allies, sponsors, and those in positions of power to recognize the distinct obstacles women attorneys of color face and enact plans to help eliminate those barriers.

Whether through training or an overhaul of D&I initiatives, the legal profession must be more intentional about acknowledging women of color. Only then will we see gains, at all levels, for all women. And only then will we be closer to making this profession as diverse as the world we live in. The voices of all women must be heard.

[Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2019 issue of the Wisconsin Lawyer™, the official publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin.]

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