By Givelle Lamano, Lamano Law Office, a woman-owned and operated criminal defense law firm located in Oakland, California.
According to a 2018 American Bar Association (ABA) study, gender bias against women of color in the legal profession is still widespread. Conventional tools to combat racial and gender bias have proven ineffective in modern times, contributing to a lack of advancement of women of color at the workplace.
In 2021, a new generation of diversity promoting tactics is necessary to promote equality and inclusion in law offices nationwide. Bringing awareness to pressing issues facing women lawyers of color is the first step to facilitating change.
1. Compensation Inequality
According to the ABA survey mentioned above, in the legal field, 70% of women of color and 60% of white women say they are underpaid compared to male colleagues, despite having similar experience levels. Additionally, minority women lawyers often receive more time-consuming office work than other team members, further impacting pay rates negatively. A gender pay gap has existed in the legal profession for decades, but many practices still fail to establish compensation metrics for identifying and equalizing these discrepancies.
Female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times more than their male counterparts. If this happens to women in the highest position of the court, what must it be like for female lawyers across the nation? Consequently, many women feel unheard during legal arguments and believe that they have to work harder to prove their points. When I appeared in criminal court for my clients, I was often mistaken for the interpreter or the defendant. Court clerks assumed this because most of my colleagues were older, Caucasian males. While it wasn’t malicious, it was implicit. This type of unconscious bias remains unaddressed, leading to consistent interruptions, even by subordinate male colleagues. In such circumstances, gender is a more significant factor than seniority. Correcting this issue requires stricter enforcement of the consequences of interruptions.
3. Backlash For Assertiveness
Although assertiveness is a requirement for the job, many female lawyers feel they receive criticism for being too direct. The backlash from colleagues leaves women of color walking on a thin line between being perceived as too passive or too aggressive. A piece of advice I received from a Caucasian male colleague was to write every email like an entitled white man. Perhaps I spent too much time adding fluff to emails because I was scared to come off as aggressive or direct. This is often the case in many Filipino cultures, both male and female — the fear of coming off entitled. White male attorneys rarely face this dilemma, resulting in different performance standards for men and women, especially women of color
4. Sexual Harassment
Women of color still face sexual harassment as legal professionals at the workplace. The American Bar Association reports that approximately 25% of women face sexual harassment, compared to only 7% of white men. As a young lawyer, I took on mentors who were mostly men. Often, comments were made about my attire more than my work product. Sexist comments and jokes are a widespread problem within the legal profession, disproportionately impacting women of color. According to the ABA report, some women have even missed out on career advancement opportunities because of refusing unwanted sexual advances.
5. Career Advancement Barriers
According to the 2018 ABA report, only about half of female lawyers of color believe they receive the same access to high-quality assignments as other colleagues. White male attorneys disproportionately receive more opportunities to advance their careers than women of color with the same experience. This lack of professional development options is often discouraging, contributing to the high attrition rates for female attorneys. I’ve always been hungry for success, and it wasn’t until I had some actual success under my belt that I was considered for advanced positions. It took both credentials and grit to have the confidence to be seen. The understanding that I had to work harder and smarter as a woman was ingrained in me since childhood. Sadly, that belief still exists in me as an adult and as a woman of color in the legal field.
6. Penalties For Parenthood
Women of color lawyers are often penalized for their parental and extended family responsibilities. Many legal firms fail to recognize these familiar obligations or provide options that contribute to a healthier work-life balance. Female attorneys also miss out on opportunities for promotions and career advancements due to pregnancy or parental leave. Although many women of color want to leave the profession because of these adversities, pressure to provide for their families financially often drives them to stay.
Discrimination and inequality within the legal profession contribute to a high percentage of female minorities ultimately abandoning the career. Only 3% of women lawyers of color become equity partners, resulting in the lack of diversity across attorneys. By establishing more inclusive workplace practices and implementing bias interrupters into existing systems, legal firms can facilitate a level playing field for women of color.
Bias interrupters are tools that integrate easily into law firm best practices. By identifying weaknesses in the existing frameworks that negatively impact diversity and inclusion, legal firms can develop hiring, project assignment, compensation and performance evaluation programs that strategically eliminate gender and racial bias.
Forbes – Entrepreneurs