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Report: Women lawyers of color are ‘left out and left behind'

“Having to deal with assumptions of inferiority, intellectual or otherwise, and constantly having to prove myself no matter how senior or qualified or experienced I am is something my white male peers do not have to do. It is psychologically exhausting.”                      

That was the experience shared by a Black woman lawyer in her mid-40s at one of 11 focus groups conducted for the new American Bar Association report, “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color.”

The report features findings from 103 women of color who participated in online surveys or the focus groups, which were held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. The women were 15 or more years out of law school.

Although women of color comprise more than 14% of all associates, the percentage of them who are partners has remained stuck below 3.5%.

Those numbers hint at the difficulty the researcher and authors faced. “The stark reality of the paucity of women of color with 15 or more years of practice in the legal profession compounded the difficulty in identifying and having African-descendent, Asian, Latina and Native American women participate in the study,” said past ABA president Paulette Brown.

Brown, social scientist Destiny Peery and Chicago attorney Eileen Letts wrote the report, which is an outgrowth of the ABA Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law. It shows that women lawyers of color surveyed were more likely to:

  • Want to leave the profession than their white colleagues
  • Be subjected to both implicit and explicit bias
  • Report factors that blocked their “access to success,” including
    • access to business development opportunities
    • being perceived as less committed to their career
    • being denied or overlooked for promotion.

Among other experiences shared in the focus groups:

“As I hear others speak about how they realized what we were up against, I wish I’d had this conversation with all of you about 20 years ago because I have been able to place in context my experiences and have been validated by things that you have all said.” — 60-year-old Asian woman

“Of course, my experiences differ from men’s experiences, but they also differ from the experiences of white women, who, after all, can still be analogized to daughters when those in positions of power are looking for a basis on which to connect with someone. The Black and Latina women in the lives of privileged white men and women might be nannies, housekeepers, doormen or other household employees. We certainly do not feel analogous to their children, and we most assuredly do not feel like their equals.” — mid-40s Black woman

“I was very serious about my career — it was a matter of life and death for me. It meant getting out of poverty for my family.” — late-50s Latinx woman

Peery noted the value in getting women of color together to talk about their experiences in the legal profession.

“The women collectively expressed that they knew other women of color had these experiences, but it was easy to forget that when there were not many opportunities to have or much space given for these conversations.

“While this research certainly helps educate the legal profession on the challenges faced by women of color, it also highlights the importance of making space for and really listening to the lived experiences of others,” she said.

“Left Out and Left Behind” outlines concrete recommendations for law firms to keep women of color lawyers, including:

  • Adopt best practices for reducing biases in decision-making
  • Improve access to effective, engaged mentors and sponsors
  • Go beyond recruitment to inclusion
  • Incorporate solutions that factor in gender and race when addressing diversity
  • Create a more inclusive culture in the legal profession

“All of the recommendations are critical, but the one that stands out is the need to improve access to mentors and sponsors,” Letts said. “The fact that the women in the study reported being left out of relationship building at the firm, that there was less access to senior attorneys and colleagues compared to white women and men has to change. We have to create structures within these institutions so that women of color are not included in name only but with the real benefit of these relationships.”

For Brown, the study emphasized the urgency to increase the percentages of all women of color in the legal profession and ensure their success. “The time is now!” she said.

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