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Sex or Race?

Vivia Chen

May 2, 2011

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? 

Fotolia_5168905_XS 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 [email protected].

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Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Fotolia.com


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@ PrincessHaven As I said, not so much.

"able to reason," DirkJohanson? That's a really odd statement.

Is any effort made to determine whether any of these complaints are legitimate, or is it just a "tell us your feelings and we will publish them as a study" sort of thing?

This finding is consistent with what I have heard from women of color in law firms, too. Most of the women of color I asked in the research for my book, Women on Top, said the obstacles they faced as women were greater than those they confronted because of race or ethnicity. Some women noticed it most when they became mothers and told me they didn't really appreciate how powerful gender bias was until they had children. Still, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that belonging to more than one "outside" group, each of which is subject to harmful biases, compounds the obstacles women of color must deal with.

It sounds like a woman could solve these problems simply by finding a husband who's willing to take care of most of the child-rearing responsibilities. That way, the woman could take an extremely short maternity leave (no longer than necessary to recover from childbirth), and then she wouldn't need to take the long absences and short workdays that force her to put her work assignments on the back burner and consequently lose them.

Perfect solution, no? The woman gets all of the responsibility and work she apparently wants, and the firm doesn't have to short-change clients by putting the maternity needs of its associates ahead of client needs.

In short, if women want to achieve the professional success that is only achievable by relegating one's entire life to the backseat and putting the job first, they need to do the things necessary to put their entire life in the backseat. But if they want to have time to manage their lives, they'll have to suffer the same consequences as men who don't throw literally every waking hour at the job.

My experience has been that gender is the bigger issue. This news comes as no surprise to me. Career advancement depends on making bonds with those in positions of power -- which are almost always men at law firms. Gender causes unease at two different levels. Some male partners aren't sure how to interract with female associates. And female associates have things happen in their careers that do not happen to the traditional male associate.

The minute an associate gets pregnant, I watch some of the male partners demonstrate visible unease around her. When she goes on maternity leave, things happen to her assignments. Unless she has made herself indispensible before becoming pregnant, she will find that those assignments will never come back. When she has to leave early to take care of the kids, things happen to her assignments and other associates take advantage of this weakness. This doesn't happen to the traditional male associate, regardless of color.

The law is an unforgiving and jealous mistress. Women often have other things going on in their lives that -- biologically -- demand their absence. Women suffer professionally as a result.

Story: a bunch of people were asked if they feel they should make more money, and whether it's someone else's fault that they don't.

They all said Yes.

Because the respondents were non-white females, their response was taken to be noteworthy in some fashion.

Dirk - so according to you married women are unable to reason?

I'm pretty shocked by the results. I've had plenty of dealings with female GCs or ACs in my (admittedly) few years of practice, but very few minority ones (in fact... let me think... virtually none, unless I include foreign nationals who play leading roles in the legal departments of foreign subsidiaries of major companies (as one might expect)).

I agree that corporations probably "get it" more than law firms and most C suites are accountable to shareholders (which include many influential pension funds, unions, etc.) and the press more so than law firms who are pretty much unknown in the US unless they do something really wrong or controversial (e.g. King & Spalding, DLA Piper).

It could also be that there is a selection bias. I am speculating here but many of these respondents were likely working in law firms that were traditionally outside counsel of their current companies, then they got poached to be in house, and so they think, if my company sought me out or hired me, then it's likely that they wanted me here and are supportive of my career.

I would think gender would be the bigger issue. A guy, at least, is almost certainly able to reason, even if he did only get hired due to diversity needs. As ar as women reasoning, well, not so much.

Plus, since women seek out guys as marriage partners who earn more money than they do, guys will have fewer career interruptions.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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