Women and people of color in the legal profession continue to face barriers in hiring, promotions, assignments and compensation, according to a study released last week by the American Bar Association.
The survey, which proposes strategies for employers to eliminate the barriers, was conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, for the bar association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
Michele Coleman Mayes, former chairwoman of the commission, said she oversaw the report, called “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Bias in the Legal Profession,” because she was dismayed by statistics on men of color and women in top positions — and the way that law firms and organizations were talking about diversity.
The most commonly used training materials and leadership courses focused on how individual lawyers could overcome barriers in the workplace, she said, rather than on removing those barriers.
“That’s only half of the equation,” she said. “We’re hoping that people can look at the systems and not put so much weight on the individual.”
The researchers had 2,827 lawyers fill out online surveys in spring 2016 about their experiences at work. The surveys were distributed by the bar association’s e-mail list and other professional networks. The association has 400,000 members.
They found that many women and people of color felt they were held to a higher standard than white men. That feeling was most prevalent among women of color, who reported the highest levels of bias in almost every category.
About half of the women of color said they felt they had equal access to the kind of “high-quality” assignments that lead to exposure and advancement in an organization. Among white men, that number was 81 percent.
Women of all races said they had to walk a “tightrope” in their behavior. They reported pressure to behave “in feminine ways” and backlash for exhibiting stereotypically male behaviors. They were more often saddled with “office housework,” like taking notes, ordering lunch or comforting a co-worker in distress.
In a law firm, that kind of work reduces billable hours, which can hurt compensation. And while it takes up time and energy and helps the organization, it often does not lead to career advancement. The report said a lack of opportunities to take on challenging work also contributes to high attrition rates among women in law firms.
Many women said they felt they were paid less than their colleagues with similar experience. (Almost 70 percent of women of color said so, compared with 60 percent of white women and 36 percent of white men.)
And a quarter of female lawyers reported that they had experienced sexual harassment at work, including unwanted sexual comments, physical contact and romantic advances. Those episodes sometimes had career costs. About one in eight white women, and one in 10 women of color, said they had lost opportunities because they rejected sexual advances.
Among all respondents, about 70 percent said they had heard sexist comments, stories or jokes at work. And while the numbers were higher among women, lawyers of both genders felt that taking parental leave would have a negative impact on their career.
“You’ve got systemic barriers in place,” said Mayes, who is the chief legal counsel for the New York Public Library. “If you don’t think a woman with children should be promoted, if the woman has children of a certain age or expects to, that’s a huge impediment.”
According to the latest report from the bar association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, only 35 percent of active U.S. lawyers in 2016 were women, and they earned less than male colleagues. Of the top lawyers for Fortune 500 companies, just 26 percent were women. And while women graduate from law schools in large numbers, they made up only 32 percent of law school deans.
The report lays out methods and practices for organizations to counter bias, with an emphasis on using metrics to track and encourage fairness. They include abolishing questions about prior salary in job interviews, having boilerplate questions and policies for interviews and performance evaluations, and monitoring supervisors to ensure there are no consistent disparities by demographic group.
The report includes online tool kits to help employers identify and avoid bias. It offers advice, for example, on how to do evaluations using specific evidence, rather than generalizations about an employee’s abilities. Instead of “She’s quick on her feet,” a manager might write: “In March, she gave X presentation in front of Y client on Z project, answered his questions effectively, and was successful in making the sale.”
American Bar Association President Bob Carlson said the remedies the study suggests “will lead the way to better employment practices and greater diversity, which will benefit the entire legal profession and our clients.”