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ABA Study Reveals Gender, Racial Bias in Legal Profession

Sept. 6, 2018, 1:05 PM

A new report by the American Bar Association sheds light on the day-to-day impact that implicit biases have on women and people of color in the legal workplace.

According to the report, 25 percent of women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed at work, and women of color reported that they had been mistaken for administrative staff, court personnel, or janitorial staff at a level 50 percentage points higher than white men.

Across workplaces, women of color experienced highest level of bias, reporting that they had less access to high-quality assignments and opportunities for promotion than their white male colleagues.

White women and women of color both reported doing more administrative tasks (like taking notes or scheduling meetings) than white men.

“Women tend to volunteer for office housework,” said Jean Lee, president and CEO of The Minority Corporate Counsel Association, which co-sponsored the research. “Rather than [asking for volunteers], one of the suggestions we make is to rotate so men and women all have to take the role.”

The report, which has been two years in the making, draws from a survey of 2,827 in-house and firm attorneys. It was conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in conjunction with the MCCA and The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession.

“I think this research will provide the impetus to a law firm or legal department to think about how they can implement policies and procedures to mitigate implicit biases,” said Lee. “At the end of the day, diversity and inclusion is all about talent management. It’s a business strategy that leaders have to think about.”

The research highlights four common patterns of bias faced by women and attorneys of color: “prove-it-again,” in which women and people of color must work harder to prove themselves; “tightrope,” in which women and people of color must conform to a narrow range of behavior to be deemed appropriate; “maternal wall,” the bias against mothers; and “tug of war,” which describes the conflict between members of disadvantaged groups.

The 130-page report also includes detailed suggestions for how law firms and legal departments can interrupt biases in the workplace in order to increase diversity.

“The top line takeaway is you need to analyse with metrics so there can be little question about what is currently happening in a given workplace,” said Stephanie Scharf, chair of the ABA Women’s Commission . “If you don’t see change, use an iterative process until your metrics improve.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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