July 28th, 2009 | 6:00 am

Law Firm Gender Diversity Efforts Not Enough to Ensure Meaningful Inclusion of Women of Color

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Young lawyerby Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

As we’ve previously reported, women in law firms have traditionally lacked the advancement opportunities their male counterparts enjoy due to inadequate access to plum assignments, a dearth of sponsors and mentors, and competing demands of work and family life.  In recent years, progressive firms have taken an aggressive stance, establishing women’s initiatives and internal policies in an effort to level the playing field for female attorneys in the firms.  But, according to Catalyst’s study released last week, while those efforts have, in fact, improved the conditions for women in general, these efforts have been significantly less successful in improving the development, advancement and retention of women of color.

According to Kathy Giscombe, Ph.D., Vice President, Women of Color Research at Catalyst, “The study shows that women of color feel very excluded within the environment of the law firms.” As a result, women of color are leaving their law firms en masse –75% of women of color associates leave their firm by the 5th year of practice, with that number jumping to 86% by the 7th year, as per the American Bar Association figures referenced in the report.

Women of color associates cite several reasons for this feeling of exclusion, including a lack of mentors/sponsors and a lack of access to high visibility assignments. According to one African American associate quoted in the Catalyst report, “[The partners] are largely white [and male] and tend to seek out white [male] associates to work with them. I don’t think it’s always conscious. I think it’s just that the person who comes to mind for an assignment is not as often a woman of color.”

“Typically corporations have a longer history of very rigorous performance management systems and diversity inclusion programs.  However, in professional services organizations, informal networks play a really important role in advancement,” explains Giscombe, “Law firms have to look at what their informal relationships are like within their firm. If, in fact, women of color are excluded, the firms need to take very aggressive steps to connect the women of color with influential people in the organizations.” 

The first step, according to Giscombe, is to raise the consciousness within the firm.  “It could be equipping the staff with some kind of educational tool to enable the staff members to recognize and question bias that they may practice against women of color attorneys.  The awareness just really needs to be raised. People often are not aware that they are stereotyping or they have bias and they need to be more aware.”

Important to note, however, is that even among women of color, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” diversity effort.  “We did do some analysis of the differences among African American women, Asian women and Latina and we did see that African American women were more likely to cite lack of challenging goals, client engagement and constructive feedback as a barrier to advancement; They felt more excluded than Asian and Latina women.  Asian women were more likely to mention not understanding organizational politics. Latinas were more likely to cite not being able to work long hours as a barrier to advancement.  So these different groups do have some unique challenges among them.”

One might argue that attempts to tailor the diversity efforts to the needs of each women of color could be cost prohibitive but the opposite is true.  According to the study, when a lawyer leaves a firm, the cost to the employer is at least equal to, if not greater than, the departing person’s total annual salary and benefits. Says Giscombe, “Turnover would be much lower if the environments were more inclusive.  A diversity and inclusion program that is very sophisticated and addresses the need of key groups within a firm is far more cost effective.”

The key to the success of these programs is accountability, says Giscombe, “Partners and practice area leaders need to be held accountable for advancing and retaining women of color.  There has to be some kind of consequence for not following through on an organizational commitment to advancing women of color.  It doesn’t have to be strict quotas. It could just be that there is a performance measure that examines how the partner did in terms of allowing attorneys to have certain types of developmental experiences.” 

Giscombe points to Sidley Austin, one of the firms mentioned in the study, as an example of a firm that has not only taken steps to provide access to advancement opportunities to women of color but has also created accountability to ensure such access.  “Sidley has done a good job of making sure that people who work reduced hour schedules still are on partnership track, get good assignments and don’t suffer compared to their fulltime counterparts…Also, just having a compensation committee that pays attention to what sort of  assignments are being given to which associates is one level of accountability.”

The Catalyst report also recommends that firms “attempt to unravel and discuss any unwritten rules and norms that exist in the firm” and “use managers as change agents by challenging them to better understand and respond to the unique situation experienced by women of color in the workplace.”  Giscombe sees the report as a “call to action for senior people within an organization.” She added, “Perhaps now the firms can take their existing diversity programs and really tweak them to make them more effective for women of color.”

3 comments

  1. GenderSmart Solutions » Blog Archive » Retention of Women of Color in Law Firms

    [...] As a recent study by Catalyst reports in the Glass Hammer newsletter, efforts to retain women of color in law firms are meeting with mediocre success at best. Read Article [...]

  2. Sara Meyer-Davis

    Law firm have yet to fully appreciate the comercial impact of an inclusive workplace. Until then, they will pay lip service to diversity, but not make any real change.

    Sara Meyer-Davis
    Managing Partner, Strategic Diversity Advisors

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