From Givelle Lamano, Lamano Law Office, a female-owned and operated criminal defense law firm based in Oakland, California.
According to a 2018 study by the American Bar Association (ABA), gender biases against women of color are still widespread in the legal profession. Traditional tools for combating racist and gender bias have proven ineffective in modern times and help keep women of color from being promoted in the workplace.
In 2021, a new generation of diversity advancement tactics is needed to promote equality and inclusion in law firms nationwide. Raising awareness of pressing issues that lawyers of color face is the first step in making change easier.
1. Compensation inequality
According to the ABA survey mentioned above, 70% of women of color and 60% of white women in the legal sector say they are underpaid compared to their male counterparts, even though they have similar experiences. In addition, minority lawyers often receive more time-consuming office work than other team members, which further negatively impacts salary rates. There has been a gender pay gap in the legal profession for decades, but many practices still fail to establish pay metrics to identify and balance these gaps.
Female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times more often than their male counterparts. If this happens to women in the highest position in court, what about female lawyers across the country? As a result, many women feel unheard in legal battles and believe that they will have to work harder to prove their arguments. When appearing before a criminal court on behalf of my clients, I was often mistaken for the interpreter or the accused. The court clerk accepted this because most of my colleagues were older, Caucasian men. It wasn’t malicious, but it was implicit. This type of unconscious bias is not taken into account and leads to constant interruptions, also by subordinate male colleagues. In such circumstances, gender is a more important factor than seniority. Resolving this issue will require more rigorous enforcement of the consequences of interruptions.
3. Backlash for assertiveness
Although assertiveness is a prerequisite for the job, many lawyers feel that they are being criticized too directly. The backlash from colleagues leaves women of color walking a fine line between being perceived as being too passive or too aggressive. One piece of advice I got from a Caucasian male colleague was to write every email like a legitimate white man. Maybe I spent too much time making email unsightly because I was afraid of coming off aggressively or directly. This is often the case in many Filipino cultures, both men and women – the fear of getting away with it rightly. White male lawyers rarely face this dilemma, which leads to different standards of performance for men and women, especially women of color.
4. Sexual harassment
Women of color still face sexual harassment as lawyers in the workplace. The American Bar Association reports that around 25% of women experience sexual harassment, compared with just 7% of white men. As a young lawyer, I hired mentors, mostly men. Often times, comments were made more about my clothing than about my work product. Sexist comments and jokes are a common problem in the legal profession that disproportionately affects women of color. According to the ABA report, some women have even missed career opportunities because they refused unwanted sexual advances.
5. Career barriers
According to the ABA 2018 report, only about half of black lawyers believe they have the same access to high-quality tasks as other female colleagues. White male lawyers are given disproportionately more opportunities to advance their careers than women of color with the same experience. This lack of professional development opportunities is often daunting and contributes to the high turnover rates for female lawyers. I’ve always been hungry for success, and it wasn’t until I was truly successful that I was considered for advanced positions. It took both credentials and courage to have the confidence to be seen. The understanding that I had to work harder and smarter as a woman had been ingrained in me since I was a child. Unfortunately, this belief still exists in me as an adult and as a woman of color in the legal field.
6. Penalties for Parenthood
Colored lawyers are often punished for their parental and extended family responsibilities. Many law firms do not recognize these familiar commitments or offer options that help improve work-life balance. Lawyers also miss out on advancement opportunities due to pregnancy or parental leave. Although many women of color want to quit their jobs because of these adversities, the pressure to support their families often drives them to stay.
Discrimination and inequality within the legal profession cause a high percentage of minority women to eventually give up careers. Only 3% of colored lawyers become equity partners, resulting in a lack of diversity among lawyers. By adopting more inclusive workplace practices and implementing bias breakers into existing systems, law firms can level the playing field for women of color.
Bias breakers are tools that easily fit into law firm best practices. By identifying weaknesses in the existing framework that negatively impact diversity and inclusion, law firms can develop recruitment, project assignment, compensation, and performance evaluation programs that strategically eliminate gender and racial biases.