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Minority Women Are More Ambitious

Vivia Chen

January 30, 2019

Rawpixel-674078-unsplashHow curious: Despite their low status as minorities among minorities, women of color are resolute in their determination to get ahead. In fact, minority women tend to be much more ambitious than their white sisters and, in some cases, more so than white men.

That ambition seems counterintuitive, considering how few minority women make it to equity partnership in Big Law (2.81 percent) or the C-suite of major corporations (3.9 percent). Yet that's the revelation in the latest McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org study on women in the workplace.

 Consider these findings:

- Minority women (76 percent or more, depending on ethnicity) are far more likely than white women (68 percent) to seek advancement.

- Some groups of minority women aspire for promotions more than men (83 percent of Asian women and 80 percent of black women versus just 75 percent of all men). 

- Asian women topped all groups of men and women in negotiating for raises and promotions (34 percent negotiated for raises and 44 percent for promotions versus 29 percent and 36 percent for men, respectively).

- More women of color than white women want to be a top executive (38 percent of black women, 44 percent of Latina women and 51 percent of Asian women versus just 29 percent of white women.)

While we might expect a gender divide in workplace attitudes, what’s surprising is the apparent ambition gap between women of color and white women. Though all women face enormous hurdles in reaching the top (remember, women make up only 20 percent of equity partners), white women dominate that select club. (The 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey found that white women are making gains in law firms.)

So if any group should feel encouraged about going for the brass ring, it should be white women. Why, then, are more of them hanging back while women of color are fighting the daunting odds?

Some women of color say they feel they have no choice but to push forward. “Culturally, it’s not unusual to find black, Hispanic or Asian women with family responsibility at an early age,” says Paula Boggs, Starbucks’ former general counsel and the first female African-American partner at Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates). After her parents’ divorce, Boggs says, she took care of her three siblings: “At 13, I was responsible for babysitting and standing in for my mom in certain situations. My story is typical in the African-American community.”

Sandra Leung, the general counsel of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., says she’s not surprised that minority women strive harder. “White women are used to relying on white men,” Leung says. “They are more supported in corporate environments.” As a result, she says, women of color feel they have to be more self-reliant: “I didn’t think of relying on someone else. It’s our reality.” With nine girls and one boy in her family, Leung says she “worked in all kinds of crazy jobs through school” and never thought of slowing her work pace: “I never took time off except for maternity leave.” She adds, “Work/life balance is an illusion anyway. It’s conjured up to make us feel guilty. It comes down to making choices.”

Which brings us to this question: Are white women making the choice to be less ambitious because they can? To put it more bluntly: Are they too comfortable, too well-off and too acculturated to traditional norms—like the idea that women’s first priority should be home and children—to gun for top positions?

Indeed, it’s hard not to consider the dynamics of privilege—white female privilege—in this discussion. But who’s ready to go there?



Twitter @lawcareerist. 


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I'm going to say something that might not be particularly popular. This is a family discussion as opposed to an individual one. Ambition may be a function of necessity. White men have historically assumed the role of breadwinner and White women have both expected them to and enjoyed the benefits that come with it. I don't think it's that White women are too comfortable. I think the data reflects that they have options as evidenced by the average net worth of White families. For many minority women, their family's entire financial position depends on their ambition--often they have the responsibility for extended family as well. Perhaps they might take their foot off of the gas if they could afford to do that. I don't know. I'd be interested to see what the results are by age and marital status though. At the beginning of my career, I found no difference in my ambition and my peers--regardless of gender or race. However, after people started having children, things changed. The other lesson this article taught me is that I need to start negotiating like an Asian woman!

Ok. Let me get this straight. This piece of data is now a reason to take shots at white women for their perceived lack of need/interest in chasing the brass ring? And this generalization/approach helps the cause of all women...how?

Wouldn't it be nice if the survey also found that white women were supporting the ambitions of women of color? Historically, unlikely, but that would be a quality reason for the gap. #letmedream

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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: VChen@alm.com

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