YourABA September 2012 Masthead

Hidden biases can hold back women of color as they advance in their careers

Implicit bias, also known as hidden or unconscious bias, is more evident as women of color climb the corporate ladder, said lawyers from Fortune 500 companies at “Visible Invisibility,” a panel discussion during the ABA Annual Meeting.

“You don’t see overt bias today, but we’re at the front end of the conversation about implicit bias. When it comes to implicit bias, it’s a whole [different] thing going on out there,” said Wendy C. Shiba, president-elect of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and former executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of KB Home.

Shiba said implicit bias is obvious in fewer opportunities for promotion and meaningful career development, though she added that it has been present in various hiring phases of her career.

“When I was vetted for one of my jobs, the question that came back from the CEO was, 'Is she tough enough?' Think about what’s behind that question,” Shiba said. “I really doubt if the white male candidate was vetted the same way. … You can draw your own conclusions.”

For women of color, biases are also heightened when they have families, said panelists.

Kim Rivera, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at the health care company DaVita, said she’s known as a hard worker, and she recalls an effort by executives at her company to “protect her from herself” when she was pregnant. They wanted to lighten her workload.

Rivera said she knows the executives meant well, but she had to remind them that she would be the one to manage her life: “I said, ‘I got this. If it becomes a problem, I’ll let you know.’”

Panelists said from their experiences, women with children or other family commitments are perceived as less committed and less ambitious than “family men.”

As a result, women are put on the defensive. Paula Boggs, former executive vice president, general counsel and secretary at Starbucks, shared a story about a gifted female lawyer in her company who had come to her when she learned she was pregnant. Boggs said the lawyer let her know that “she didn’t want to be put on a mommy track.” The mommy track most often results in fewer chances for promotion and meaningful career development.

The panel’s moderator, Ruthe Catolico Ashley, founder and president of the workplace consulting firm Diversity Matters, asked fellow panelist Mary L. Smith if the combination of gender and color form an additional barrier in having limited access to professional networks.

Smith, president-elect of the National Native American Bar Association and counselor in the civil division at the U.S. Department of Justice, said women need to be proactive about establishing their own networks instead of trying to fit into others. She encouraged women to keep in touch with college friends and associates. “You have a lot more [networks] than you think you do,” Smith said.

The panel was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

How women of color fare in Fortune 500 legal departments

Initial findings from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession survey “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Fortune 500 Legal Departments” found that women of color are underpaid, underestimated and undervalued.

According to an executive summary of the survey, “Sadly, female attorneys of color often are treated as second-class citizens in a profession that ironically is charged with the responsibility of ensuring justice and equality for all.”

Nine years ago, the Commission on Women in the Profession created its Women of Color Research Initiative, which has produced surveys to bring attention to the inequities women of color contend with in the profession.

The first phase of this initiative explored the career experiences of women of color in law firms. The current phase of the initiative focuses on those women in corporate law departments during four aspects of their careers: hiring, recruitment, retention and advancement.

So far, the survey has found that women of color did not experience bias in hiring, but as they progressed in their careers, they experienced it in the retention and advancement phases.

Lorelie S. Masters, the co-chair for the Women of Color Research Initiative Committee, said that other initial findings revealed that 48 percent of white men reported satisfaction with their careers in-house compared with 17 percent of African-American women. Though pleased with the decision to work for in-house Fortune 500 legal departments, African-American women’s overall satisfaction was significantly less.

The survey determined that compensation was a key factor in job satisfaction during each phase of a lawyer’s career. Masters said that one study highlighted that the pay gap in the beginning may start at a $2,000 annual difference between male and female associates earning up to $66,000 a year. She said, “We all understand, and certainly women of color as much as anyone, that compensation is a measure of how an organization values one’s contribution.”

The full report of the nationwide survey of 1,000 in-house lawyers at Fortune 500 companies will be published in the fall.

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