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Study: Widespread gender and racial bias persists in legal industry

The legal industry has not made much progress on the gender and racial discrimination front, according to a new study, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See.” The study confirms that widespread gender and racial bias permeates hiring, promotion, assignments and compensation in the legal industry.

Fifty-eight percent of women attorneys of color and half of white women lawyers surveyed say they have been mistaken for administrative staff or janitors, the study found. In very sharp contrast, only 7 percent of white male lawyers report a similar occurrence.

Conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, on behalf of The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, the report examines implicit gender and racial bias in legal workplaces. Fortunately, the report also offers new solutions and tools for interrupting bias across the legal profession.

Women of color hit hardest. Overall, women of color reported the highest level of bias in almost every workplace process in the survey:

  • 63 percent of women of color report having to go “above and beyond” to get the same recognition as their colleagues.
  • Men of color and white women experience “prove-it-again” bias at a higher percentage (nearly 25 percentage points higher) than white men, but women of color experience prove-it-again bias at a higher percentage than any other group—35 percentage points higher than white men and 10 percentage points higher than men of color and white women.
  • 67 percent of women of color report being held to higher standards than their colleagues. Men of color and white women also feel like they are held to higher standards considerably more often—58 percent and 52 percent respectively—than white men.
  • About half of women of color (53 percent) report that they had equal access to high-quality assignments compared to 81 percent of white men.
  • Three-fourths of white men believed they have been given fair opportunities for promotion, but just over half of women of color (52 percent) believe the same.

Law firm vs. in-house. Interestingly, the study revealed that women of all races and men of color reported lower levels of bias in-house than in law firms. White men, however, reported lower levels of bias in law firms than in-house.

Parental leave. The study also found that across the board, respondents reported negative career consequences after taking parental leave. Women of all races said they were treated worse after having children by being given low-quality assignments, passed over for promotions, demoted, or paid less and/or unfairly disadvantaged for working part-time or with a flexible schedule.

Fifty-seven percent of white women and about half of people of color (50 percent of women of color and 47 percent of men of color) agreed that taking family leave would have a negative impact on their career. Forty-two percent of white men surveyed also felt taking parental leave would have a negative impact on their career, demonstrating the flexibility stigma surrounding leave affects all lawyers.

Compensation. Both women of color and white women reported large amounts of bias in compensation. Nearly 70 percent of women of color say they were paid less than their colleagues with similar experience and seniority, while only 36 percent of white men report the same. Similarly, 60 percent of white women reported they were paid less than comparable colleagues.

Sexual harassment. As to sexual harassment, the study revealed that the legal industry follows a disturbing national trend. A quarter of women reported that they had encountered unwelcome sexual harassment at work, including unwanted sexual comments, physical contact, and/or romantic advances. Sexist comments, stories, and jokes appear to be widespread in the legal field, with more than 70 percent of all groups reporting encountering this type of activity in the workplace.

Bias Interrupters Toolkits. In an effort to assist corporate legal departments and law firms mitigate the potential negative impact of an unconscious bias, the survey report includes Bias Interrupters Toolkits. Derived from the research, these “bias interrupters” are incremental steps that tweak basic business systems to produce measurable change in behaviors and outcomes.

About the study. The study surveyed 2,827 in-house and firm attorneys from April-June 2016 (525 respondents included comments). The rating scale questions were based on social science studies documenting implicit bias in the workplace.

“This report paints a stark picture of the obstacles that block many lawyers from achieving their potential,” ABA President Bob Carlson said in a statement. “The remedies it suggests—using metrics to encourage fairness—will lead the way to better employment practices and greater diversity, which will benefit the entire legal profession and our clients.”

Joan C. Williams, Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law said: “This study confirmed that many lawyers report exactly the kinds of racial and gender bias long documented by social psychologists. While research has found that bias trainings are often ineffective, this report includes a new approach to interrupting bias that is evidence-based and metrics-driven.”