Editors’ Note: This article was originally published in December 2009.
Q: I am the director of professional development at a national law firm and I sit on its diversity and women’s committees. Over the past five years, we have seen a significant increase in the percentage of our female partners but unfortunately, we haven’t had much success with diverse female partners. We’ve tried everything: targeted recruitment, lateral hires, mentoring programs, diversity seminars, focused on-campus recruitment. You name it, we’ve done it, but we can’t seem to make any long-lasting progress in this area.
I know from my colleagues that other firms are facing similar challenges but I still believe there must be a way to improve this situation. Are there any particular strategies that work?
A: Tough question, and even tougher answers. According to an October 2009 NALP release, only 1.88 percent of law firm partners are women of color. As stated by Laura M. Padilla in a 1997 Fordham Law Review note (where then, as now, the number of women of color partners was under 2 percent), “there are so few partners who are women of color, they are statistically insignificant (emphasis added).” Deep. (“Intersectionality And Positionality: Situating Women of Color in The Affirmative Action Dialogue,” 66 Fordham Law Review, 843, 853-885 (December 1997)).
A recent groundbreaking Catalyst study conducted by Dr. Katherine Giscombe, vice president, Women of Color Research, suggests that law firms must consider the unique challenges confronted by women of color in order to create effective diversity strategies. Dr. Giscombe describes the unique challenges as “intersectionality,” which “refers to how identities of gender with race/ethnicity combine to create unique experiences for women of color in the workplace.”
As she explains, when diversity strategies fail to address this dynamic, it leads to the “imperfect or less than successful execution of diversity policies through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.” Consequently, law firm programming or affinity group activities that may generate favorable results for women generally, may require further tweaking to fully include and accommodate the development of women of color .
Repeatedly, the anecdotal results of the Catalyst study strongly suggest that women of color leave the law firm environment because they experienced their workplaces as exclusionary. “[To fit in] I guess you [just] have to appear more…WASP-ish in a way,” stated one Asian respondent. In another attempt at homogeneity, one Latina attorney states that “I try to behave as American as I can. And I try to hide [my Latin heritage]….”
In addition to an acute sense of feeling left out, Dr. Giscombe’s research revealed that women of color frequently felt that performance reviews and goal setting were not evenly implemented, and also considered that they were excluded from the all-too-crucial informal networks with senior people that play such a strong role in advancement opportunities.
In order to create a more inclusive environment, Dr. Giscombe challenges law firms to dispense with the “one-size-fits-all approach” and encourages each firm to assess its own environment to create a more effective diversity program that works best for their employees.
Further, the firms must make the effort to monitor and track the career development of diverse groups that includes their placement on high visibility assignments.
Finally, firms must develop mentoring programs that allow for mentoring across differences so that women of color can learn to successfully facilitate the formation of relationships with powerful players. Less than 2 percent is fine for dairy products but completely unacceptable for women of color partners. This has to change.
Katherine Frink-Hamlett, a graduate of New York University School of Law, is president of Frink-Hamlett Legal Solutions Inc.