By Tammy Zhu • April 16, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
“So he had said ‘always,’ so she would not have to be afraid of the change – the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath. He had said ‘always’ to convince her, assure her, of permanency.” – Toni Morrison, Sula
This past weekend, I sat through a series of diversity panels. They featured leaders of law firm diversity efforts including partners, counsel, and managing partners. The panels showcased the firms' and the individual leaders' commitment to diversity. During the panels, I learned that supervisors judge work product of black associates more harshly and critically than work product of white associates, even when the work product is exactly the same. I learned that the quality of feedback that women associates receive is worse than their male counterparts' - women receive more critical and less useful comments in reviews than men. At the same time, I learned that law firm leaders - at least some of them - are reminding their fellow partners and supervisors the impact of unconscious biases on reviews and assignment opportunities and encouraging them to use their "sponsorship capital" on diverse associates.
Each panel ended with ten to fifteen minutes for questions. By the end of each panel, I had accumulated a list of burning questions scribbled into the margins of my pamphlet. I got to ask some of them, but not all of them. I imagine my fellow audience members also had burning questions that they didn't get to ask. Each Q&A session was flooded with thoughtful, earnest questions about problems in law firm diversity and how to solve them, but there wasn't enough time to talk about all the problems or all the solutions or even the most important ones. That got me thinking: what questions should we be asking these diversity panel speakers?
I don't know about all diversity panels or even a wide variety of diversity panels, but the ones I sat through last weekend, I am told, were as least in part meant to show associates, and in particular diverse associates, that their employers, supervisors, and management are committed to diversity. After one of the panels, I approached a panelist and thanked him for his remarks and participation on these panels. I commented that it is important to me to hear from the supervisors and senior leaders in my office about their commitment and everyday actions to retain, sponsor, and promote diverse associates. The panelist responded that this was one of the goals of these panels - to convince us, assure us, of our importance to our firms.
So, are any of us convinced? If not, what questions should we be asking to give them another shot at convincing us? What questions should we be asking to signal what we care about and want? Here are my top five questions for these types of diversity panels - where part of the panel's goal is to convince and assure us of our importance to our organization, our employer, or our field. I've included what informed these questions and why I think they are important:
1. What happens if the current diversity statistics do not change in the next ten years?
I think this question is important to measure commitment and accountability. When a panelist says that "five to ten years from now," things will be "different," I want to understand whether that promise has any teeth - what if "things" don't change? What if the numbers (tiny fractions of minority partners) remain the same or increase by only one or two percentage points? Then what?
2. Who's doing this better than you are?
The panelists I saw focused on their own organizations' efforts and aspirations to become more diverse, but is there recognition or awareness of how they can be doing even better?
3. Do you have targets?
Companies in other industries have set diversity targets. For example, Pinterest set the target that 30% of its incoming full-time engineers be female. Facebook set the target that one third of its law firm teams be women and ethnic minorities. What are these firms' own targets? If their target is for their partnership to reflect the diversity profile of the current incoming first-year associates, is that target the best that firms can realistically do, or can they do better, especially where their incoming Latino associates and black associates make up no more than 5% each?
4. What are the differences in retention across gender and race, and how do you measure it?
Retention rates are an important factor in diversity, especially diversity among supervisors and leadership. Research on law firms in general has shown that retention rates of minority associates are much lower than that of non-minority associates. When a panelist claims that retention of women and men associates are the same at their organization or that retention of racially diverse associates are the same as white counterparts, I would want to understand how they are measuring retention.
5. How do you account for the challenges to building diverse teams?
Research has shown that building diverse teams also has its own challenges. For example, differences often lead to greater amounts of conflict or discomfort among team members. These challenges should not be swept under the rug; rather they should be acknowledged and dealt with, and for diverse teams to really work well, additional training may be important.
If you have other must-ask questions, I'd love to hear them!