What's your bet? Would you put money on gender or race as the bigger obstacle in getting ahead in corporate America's law departments?
I'd put my nickel on race. But that's not what women lawyers of color say, reports Corporate Counsel magazine. Gender is the bigger hurdle, according to findings by Corporate Counsel Women of Color, which surveyed female lawyers of color at Fortune 1000 law departments.
In fact, sex trumped race by a pretty healthy margin in this study. CC reports that "52 percent said that being a woman was a significant barrier, while about 35 percent indicated that race impeded advancement." CCWC founder and CEO Laurie Robinson called the results "surprisingly refreshing," reports CC.
I'm frankly surprised by the finding. From what I've seen at law firms, women as a group seem to be doing better than minorities. After all, women make up about 19 percent of partners (equity and nonequity), while minorities make up only a bit above 6 percent, according to NALP.
Is the in-house world really that much better for women of color?
It's all relative, of course. The law departments of the Fortune 1000 aren't quite rainbow coalitions. The CCWC finds that "about 55 percent of the respondents indicated that their departments were less than 20 percent diverse," reports CC, and that 16 percent "said they were the only person of color in their department." (The survey included 857 online participants, 500 attendees at a CCWC conference, and 40 focus groups participants.)
So what gives? One theory is that there's less jockeying in-house because there's less to jockey for. "Most in-house departments have the GC, a few division and practice group leaders, and everyone else," says recruiter Gloria Sandrino, a former lawyer and law professor. "The lack of advancement opportunities places everyone in more of an equal-playing field--there is no track to partnership!"
Diversity also has a longer history in corporations. "Corporations have dealt with inclusion for over 30 years," says diversity consultant Sharon Jones, who's worked both as an associate and as an in-house lawyer. Jones adds that there's less politics in corporations when it comes to work assignments: "The work is there, and you have the opportunity to do it." But getting good work assignment at firms is "a big challenge for people of color and women," she says. "And if you don’t get good work, you don’t get ahead."
Still, Jones is a bit skeptical that gender is really a bigger issue for advancement in any context: "It’s very hard to discern what’s your hardest challenge. How do you decide whether it's the gender side or the racial side that affects your career?"
Readers--do you think women of color experience more race or gender issues? And are corporations much more progressive than law firms for minorities?
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.
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