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Two reports released in August remind us in dispiriting detail of the barriers that still confront women, particularly women of color, in professional and managerial settings. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession published Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms, the first comprehensive survey of its kind, while Catalyst made available its 2005 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners. Both reports reveal persistent and pervasive inequalities. Catalyst’s statistical snapshot speaks volumes. Although women account for more than a third of management positions and graduates of MBA programs, they hold only 16% of corporate officer positions, a percentage largely unchanged over the last three years. Only 6% of top earners and 2% of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies are female. Women of color are largely missing in action; they constitute fewer than 2% of officers and 1% of top earners. Surveys on the legal profession reveal similar patterns. Women constitute half of new entrants to the profession, but less than a fifth of law firm partners, federal judges, law school deans and Fortune 500 general counsel. The gap widens for women of color, who account for only about 1% of law firm partners and general counsel. Equally stark are the disparities between women’s and men’s experiences in legal and corporate settings. For example, in the ABA’s law firm study, 44% of women of color and 39% of white women reported being passed over for desirable work assignments. By contrast, 25% of minority men and only 2% of white men reported similar experiences. About 60% of women of color and roughly the same number of white women felt excluded from formal and informal networking opportunities. Only 30% of men of color and 4% of white men experienced comparable exclusion. Almost a third of women of color, and about a quarter of white women, believed that they had received an unfair performance evaluation, a perception shared by 21% of men of color and only 1% of white men. These gender differences are consistent with other studies on professional and corporate workplaces. Women in traditionally male-dominated settings often remain out of the loop of advice and challenging assignments. The small number of women of color in upper-level legal and corporate settings compounds problems of isolation and exclusion. Although women in positions of influence may attempt to address the shortage, they rarely have time to assist all who hope to join them. Many female leaders also worry about appearances of favoritism if they channel too much support along gender and racial lines. A related problem, which also helps account for women’s underrepresentation in upper-level managerial and professional positions, involves unconscious stereotypes. Surveys like Catalyst’s 2005 report, Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge,” identify widespread gender biases. The most commonly reported stereotypes are that women lack ambition, appropriate experience, leadership and problem-solving skills, and willingness to make necessary sacrifices. Social science research finds that women of color are especially likely to lack the presumption of competence that is granted to white male professionals. The biases at play Various cognitive biases compound the force of these traditional stereotypes. People are more likely to notice and recall information that confirms their prior assumptions than information that contradicts those assumptions. Attorneys who assume that a woman of color is the beneficiary of preferential treatment, not merit-based selection, will recall her errors more readily than her successes. Supervising attorneys who assume that working mothers are not as committed as their male counterparts will remember the times those women left early, not the times they stayed late. A related problem is what psychologists label a “just world” bias. People want to believe that, in the absence of special treatment, individuals generally get what they deserve and deserve what they get. If women, particularly women of color, are underrepresented in legal and corporate leadership positions, the most psychologically convenient explanation is that they lack the necessary qualifications or commitment. That view, can, in turn, prevent women from getting assignments that would demonstrate their capabilities, and a cycle of self-fulfilling predictions is established Both the ABA and Catalyst studies highlight the importance of building awareness of gender bias, strengthening women’s support networks and increasing access to mentors and challenging assignments. They also make clear the need to monitor progress and hold decision-makers accountable. We have, after all, made substantial progress on gender issues over the last several decades. That success partly reflects the commitment of groups like Catalyst and the ABA Commission, which remind us also of the progress that still remains to be made. Deborah L. Rhode, an NLJ columnist, is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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