November 19, 2019 Chair's Column

Let’s Talk (about Race, Ethnicity, and Gender)

By Stephanie A. Scharf

Finding common ground—so much of what we do in the legal profession depends on understanding and acting on shared experiences and goals. Over the past several decades, as the legal profession increasingly opened to women and people of color, there was the recognition that a person’s experiences, understanding of others, actions, and reactions depend at least in part on one’s gender, race, and ethnicity. Several years ago, to better understand how diversity and inclusion work in the legal profession, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession published its Visible Invisibility studies, which describes the very different experiences that women of color may face, such as exclusion from informal networks, inadequate institutional support, and challenges to their competence, authority, and credibility.

This year, the Commission has taken another step toward understanding the paths to diversity and inclusion. The Commission will soon release a report entitled This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Women of Color and White Women Attorneys Find Common Ground. The vision of former Commission Chair Michele Coleman Mayes, This Talk Isn’t Cheap was developed by the Commission’s Guided Conversations Project, which explores cross-cultural conversations, the ways that women experience race and ethnicity (which is sometimes referred to as intersectionality), and how all women can engage in meaningful discussions about race, ethnicity, gender, and the legal profession.

This Talk Isn’t Cheap shares the results of focus group research about the differing experiences of gender and race, as well as guidance for structured discussions to foster greater trust and openness in holding hard conversations. We all know these conversations are not easy. Women lawyers might be concerned about alienating colleagues, jeopardizing their careers, embarrassing themselves, or being labeled prejudiced. But those feelings pale in the face of the personal and social benefits from listening, learning, and understanding another’s experience.

To kickstart this initiative, in September, the Commission on Women had the honor of hosting playwright, actor, author, and educator Anna Deavere Smith for an intimate presentation and discussion about the dynamics of race, ethnicity, and gender in the legal profession. Smith presented her singular brand of theater to an audience of 125 attorneys hosted by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom, LLP, New York, exploring issues of anxiety, trauma, humility, identity, and racial discrimination. Following Smith’s presentation, a panel of women of color and white women attorneys candidly reflected on their own experiences with gender, ethnicity, and race, and considered best practices for engaging in meaningful dialogue with their colleagues. The Commission looks forward to sharing the recording of this program along with the publication of This Talk Isn’t Cheap and a facilitator’s guide in late 2019/early 2020.

Diversity, with inclusion of the broadest possible range of talent at all levels of the profession, enriches our work experiences, our life experiences, and the law itself. I encourage each of you to read This Talk Isn’t Cheap as a guide for reflection on your own experiences with gender, ethnicity, and race, and so that these meaningful conversations continue.


By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago and chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.