By Tammy Zhu • February 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Law School, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
It was neither preaching nor praying that made a better person of me, but one or two people who believed in me better than I deserved, and I hated to disappoint them.
I recently went to a holiday party where two white male law firm partners were asking each other why we see so many female associates leave big law starting around their fifth year and what firms can do to keep them. They were concerned that women leave for reasons beyond the firms’ control, such as appealing in-house positions or to devote more time to parenthood. I told them that the times I’ve thought about quitting have been during moments when I don’t feel supported by the partners or other supervisors on my cases. They asked, “What do you mean?”
What I meant was the feeling of being alienated. It’s the feeling you have when the highlight of your job lives in the moments when you walk down the hall of your white-shoe law firm and somebody important actually stops and asks you about your work and how you’re doing – because outside of these intermittent interactions, “you feel largely ignored by the powers that be.” It’s the feeling you have when you notice that your fellow African-American associates “are always all on the large document reviews.” It’s the feeling you have when you see more senior minority associates than senior white associates doing document review and you think, “Aren’t you a little senior for this?”
It’s the feeling you have when you see the white male partners gravitate toward mentoring and sponsoring your white male counterparts but even the minority partners “have no interest and feel no obligation to mentor young minority attorneys.” It’s the feeling you have when you see a new black woman lawyer start at your firm and you as a fellow black associate go meet her, only to hear that you are “the only other black lawyer to come meet her” out of the four black lawyers at the firm. It’s the feeling that “there is no one to support us.”
The career experiences of women of color differ dramatically from those of their peers and in particular white males. In law firms, women of color are denied equal access to significant assignments, mentoring and sponsoring opportunities, and have the highest rates of attrition.
Studies show that the reasons behind these high attrition rates are not beyond law firms’ control: many women of color reconsider their career goals as a result of the stress of second-class citizenship in law firms. They are disproportionately excluded from informal and formal networking opportunities. They lack mentors and others who help integrate them into the firm’s internal networks and who make sure that they get desirable assignments and substantive client contact. As a result, they tend to feel isolated, marginalized, and peripheral to their firms.
As Jenny Jones observes, “When you find ways to exclude and make people feel invisible in their environment, it’s hostile….Women face these silent hostilities in ways that men will never have to. It’s very silent, very subtle and you, as a woman of color—people will say you’re too sensitive. So you learn not to say anything because you know that could be a complete career killer. You make it as well as you can until you decide to leave.”
This sense of alienation is neither personal nor universal, but is correlated with gender and race. And the feeling of alienation among women of color is not limited to large law firms, or lawyers. In Why Legal Education Is Failing Women, Sari Bashi and Maryana Iskander dissect why female law students experience greater feelings of alienation and loss of confidence than their male counterparts. Their research shows that women are less likely to find faculty mentors than men, and women of color are even less likely to find faculty mentors than white women. Among a first-year class at Yale Law School, 11% of minority females reported having a faculty mentor, compared to 22% of white females. Yet mentors can be especially valuable to women and racial minorities: one professor suggested, “Everyone, but perhaps especially women and minorities, needs to be reassured.” The epigraph of this post has stuck with me since high school, when I had built my first mentoring relationship. Now, ten years later, I finally understand why this quote struck a chord in me – because as a minority woman, I have perhaps needed more than others to be reassured of my value, and being reassured has perhaps meant more to me and done more for me than perhaps my average, non-minority peer.
In response to the Women’s March, ShiShi Rose, a black activist, wrote a letter to white allies that exposes the distance between women of color and the rest of America and the deep-rooted alienation experienced by women of color: “For some people, their outlook of this country deeply changed on November 9th. For the rest of us, this is how it has always looked….You don’t get to join because now you’re scared, too. I was born scared.” Seeing the lack of minority leaders in the march, Char Adams, a black journalist, was led to believe that “black women were, by default, not a priority to the organizers.” The lack of minority leaders made her wonder:
Is this march for me too? Do the organizers care about the issues that disproportionately affect black women? Do these women care about the increased violence against black women? Do these women care about – or even know – that black women are about six times more likely to go to prison than white women?
Similarly, every day, women of color associates are led to believe that they are, by default, not a priority to the partners. We wonder, “Is this firm for us too? Do the powers that be care about the lack of mentorship, the exclusion from networks, the marginalization that disproportionately affect women of color?” Every day, minority female law students are made to feel that they are, by default, not a priority to their professors. We wonder, “Is this law school for us too? Do the faculty and administration care about the issues that disproportionately affect us?” This is the feeling of alienation, and this is why it’s not a universal feeling.
What is within law firms’ control? Law firms can pay more attention to intersectionality: “many law firms have diversity initiatives that focus on either gender or race,” but “few—if any—pay attention to the overlap of these factors known as ‘intersectionality’….And that’s where many of the problems lie. Women of color often are twice removed.”
Law firms can do more to figure out how to mentor their women of color associates: “it is incumbent on law firms to figure out how to mentor young lawyers, and especially women of color.” Surveys indicate that almost 70 percent of women of color associates would have liked “more and/or better mentoring by senior attorneys or partners.” Some practitioners believe that “the lack of mentoring is the No. 1 reason people leave law firms regardless of race or gender.”
Law firms can encourage senior leaders to talk more often and more openly about their commitment to gender diversity and to model their commitment through everyday actions: in McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s study of companies, 62 percent of senior leaders said that gender diversity was an important personal priority, but only 28 percent of employees experienced senior leaders regularly encouraging open dialogue on the topic.
Law firms can make sure that women of color associates have “the opportunity to get good work and the opportunity to make a mistake or two.” This is important because double minority group members face double jeopardy: for example, when black women fail, they are evaluated much more harshly than black men and white leaders of both sexes, such that for double minorities, failure is not an option.
When it comes to retaining women of color associates, “when you lose any ground, you lose a lot because you never had that much in the first place.” So if law firms genuinely, deeply care about retaining their women of color associates, they should probably do everything within their control to keep every one of them from leaving.