28 Oct 2020

Women lawyers face racial roadblocks in gender diversity push, ABA study finds

Lack of dialogue over race issues potentially hindering female equality in the legal profession

The ABA's office in Washington DC

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Communication barriers between white women lawyers and women lawyers of colour risks impeding diversity efforts in the legal industry and need to be addressed, according to a study from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession.

The ABA’s report This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Women of Color and White Women Attorneys Find Common Ground explores why women of colour sometimes mistrust their white women colleagues and why white women sometimes struggle to understand the needs of their minority peers.

The study is part of the ABA’s Guided Conversations Project toolkit, which provides videos and other materials to help women discuss racial dynamics at work.

Patricia Lee Refo, the ABA’s president, said: “Women lawyers need to have meaningful conversations and open dialogues about gender, race, and ethnicity in the workplace in order to move forward. This report and toolkit will be a useful guide to start those difficult but necessary conversations.”

The report draws on conversations with a group of 94 women lawyers – 49 women of colour and 45 white women – and provides insights into the challenges both groups face. 

Women lawyers of colour said they want their white women colleagues to recognise that their gender experiences are very different because of the added issues around race and ethnicity. They also want their white colleagues to recognise that women of colour are not a homogenous group and that there is vast diversity among them.

Women of colour said that starting conversations with white women was critical to the advancement of all women in the workplace, but added that they perceive white women as defensive about racial and ethnic issues.

White women lawyers, meantime, said they recognise that all women are in it together but that they might not always see the perspectives of women of colour and would like more guidance on how they can help and support their colleagues. They also admitted to feeling a high degree of anxiety about starting such conversations in case they unintentionally cause offence or create misunderstandings.

The report recommends that both groups commit to engaging in conversations and to be comfortable with feeling a little bit of discomfort, but also to acknowledge that the dialogue is aimed at creating understanding and not for people to agree or disagree with.

Research published by the ABA in June found that women lawyers of colour are more likely to want to leave the legal profession than their white colleagues, be subjected to implicit and explicit bias and be denied career development opportunities.

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