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Report finds ways female lawyers can advance racial equality

November 16, 2020

Historically, female lawyers of all races have not worked together in the quest for gender equality, according to a new study and report sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

The report, “This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Women of Color and White Women Attorneys Find Common Ground,” explores why female lawyers of color often mistrust white female colleagues in the workplace, while white female lawyers feel challenged to understand the needs of their minority female colleagues.

A report from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession finds that honest conversations are key to gender equality in the legal profession.

A report from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession finds that honest conversations are key to gender equality in the legal profession.

Getty Images / Maskot

For the study, a focus group of 94 female lawyers – 49 women of color and 45 white women from all backgrounds ­­– shared their perspectives on gender, race and ethnicity. According to the report, female lawyers of all races said that engaging in honest conversations – though sometimes awkward – are essential to advancing gender equality in the legal profession.

Getting the conversation started is often the hardest part, because everyone’s perspectives are different and come with specific biases – conscious and unconscious – about race, gender and ethnicity, said former Commission chair Michele Mayes, general counsel at New York Public Library. She said keeping an open mind and rejecting labels are important first steps. “You must have willful awareness and not make assumptions about anyone based on their race or ethnicity.”

Instead, female lawyers must accept each other’s differences and build on common goals. The report and toolkit help to “get the conversations out in the open,” Mayes said.

The study and report are part of the Guided Conversations Project, a comprehensive toolkit designed to guide these necessary dialogues. It includes the report, a facilitators’ guide with discussion questions, a description of the program and a bibliography of resources to help groups of women have conversations about racial dynamics in the workplace. Three recorded video vignettes (“Look in the Mirror,” “A Heavy Sense of Resignation” and “Injury”) feature Anna Deavere Smith, actress, playwright, teacher and author. In each video, Smith brings the findings of the report to life by presenting a range of voices that touch on the universal themes of belonging, identity, poverty vs. privilege and brokenness. 

“The toolkit gives people permission to not be perfect,” Mayes said. “You don’t have to be perfect to be better.”

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