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December 08, 2020

Trust among female lawyers important for honest conversations about race, panelists say

Open and ongoing dialogue about gender, race and ethnicity in the workplace that includes as many voices as possible is essential to making progress toward racial equity in the legal profession, according to a new report and toolkit from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Michele Coleman Mayes, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Michele Coleman Mayes, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

 “This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Women of Color and White Women Attorneys Find Common Ground n provides a guide to improving conversations about gender, race and ethnicity, also referred to as intersectionality, so that all women can work together in overcoming the barriers to advancement in the legal profession. The report explores the reasons why women of color have feelings of mistrust toward their white female colleagues, while also addressing the challenges white women experience in attempting to understand the needs of their minority female colleagues.  The study suggests that through structured dialogue, women of color and white women can bridge gaps in understanding and build allyship to promote racial equity.

In a webinar called “This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Guiding Conversations Toward Equity,” a diverse panel of female lawyers discussed the report and toolkit, which has everything needed to start an open dialogue to foster a greater understanding and respect for colleagues and take critical steps to creating a more inclusive, just and equitable workplace.

Michele Coleman Mayes, former Commission chair and vice president, general counsel and secretary for the New York Public Library, moderated the webinar and asked panelists about their personal experiences in the workplace as female lawyers.

“I think that the level of trust that is there will really reflect the quality and the depth of the conversation,” said panelist Aracely Muñoz, director of the Center for Reproductive Rights Washington, D.C., office. She also serves on the Commission on Women in the Profession and is a past chair of the Hispanic National Bar Association Commission on Latinas in the Legal Profession. The facilitator’s guide in the toolkit addresses how to bridge a lack of trust among colleagues, since everyone experiences gender bias differently.

“What folks need to understand … is that over the past few months, trust has really been damaged or brought into question by what we see and what we’ve seen in the media,” Muñoz said. “If you don’t have (trust) then work on it, and start building it so that you can have these meaningful and deep conversations that are going to help all of us get ahead and move ahead in our profession.”

Panelist Wendy Shiba said what struck her most from the report was the desire of female attorneys of color to be heard. Shiba is a retired general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, past commissioner on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, a member of the ABA House of Delegates and past president of the National Asian Pacific Bar Association.

“We’ve all experienced that when women of color discuss these issues amongst ourselves, it can feel very validating, it’s very comforting, but we also realized that when we limit the discussion to our inner circle, we alone can’t fix it,” she said. “The only way that we’re going to have meaningful change is to open up the circle and have meaningful dialogue.”

Three video vignettes in the toolkit address the universal themes of belongingness, identity, poverty vs. privilege, and brokenness and serve as a launching pad for dialogue on key issues.

Mayes asked if there’s a burden placed on women of color to start dialogues about race and ethnicity. “Typically, in their organizations, they are one of very few, and sometimes the sole woman of color in the workplace,” Shiba said. “It’s an unusual shift of the burden to put that on that person’s shoulders, particularly if she is more junior in the workplace. I think that one of the outcomes that we had hoped for in the “This Talk Isn’t Cheap” project is that white women who come willingly and openly to this conversation would realize that they can do a lot to be proactive in initiating these discussions.”

Panelist Maureen Mulligan, Commission chair and a litigation partner at Peabody and Arnold in Boston, said she’s learned that it’s not okay to only include one woman of color on a panel, because there’s not just one voice, there are many voices.  “It also made me much more conscious of what women of color in my firm might be feeling or that there may be thoughts that they were having that I didn’t know about and I needed to ask them about those, about what they were thinking and feeling, because their experience as a woman of color may be different than my experience as a white woman."

A program roadmap and materials list in the toolkit makes it easy to tailor the length of a presentation from a half hour to 90 minutes or longer. The facilitator’s guide offers specific questions designed to promote dialogue and inclusion.  There are also post-program action items and helpful tips in the toolkit, including how to deal with the discomfort of a sensitive conversation.

Panelist Arlena Barnes, the former Bonneville Power Administration’s lead negotiating attorney for hydropower coordination agreements in the Columbia River Basin, explained why it’s easier to talk to other female lawyers who look like her.

“Part of it is because oftentimes women of color have similar, for instance, work experiences or wider experiences within the world,” she said. “They may have experienced some sort of discrimination or misunderstanding where race carries too much weight when people are making decisions, which should be based on skills, or education or talents. You feel that someone will empathize with you and understand you in some sort of very basic way. There’ll be that connect.”

Barnes said that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris embodies the stereotype that bothers her the most. “People say she’s too ambitious or too aggressive, or people say she’s inappropriate, or people say she doesn’t know her place. … Those are the kinds of things I find difficult or problematic.”

This webinar was co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity.