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Girls & Women

Lawyers Are Facing Persistent Racial and Gender Bias at Work, Survey Shows


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Work is only one place where women and people of color experience discrimination. Research organizations like Center for WorkLifeLaw provide employers with the information they need to tackle their bias. You can join us in addressing inequality here.   

An alarming number of working women and people of color feel the odds are against them in the legal field. 

A new survey released by the American Bar Association Thursday found women and people of color in the industry think their gender and race work against them in all aspects of their profession. 

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The data was collected by the University of California's Hastings College of the Law's Center for WorkLifeLaw specifically for the bar association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. 

Michele Coleman Mayes, former chairwoman of the commission, spearheaded the report, entitled, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Bias in the Legal Profession.” Mayes wanted to change how law organizations discussed diversity and give them the tools to deal with their issues. 

“You’ve got systemic barriers in place,” Mayes told the New York Times. “If you don’t think a woman with children should be promoted, if the woman has children of a certain age or expects to, that’s a huge impediment.”

The survey yielded discouraging responses.

Many of the women and people of color who filled it out thought more was expected of them compared to white men. Women of color reported feeling the highest levels of bias all around.

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Half the women of color said they sensed they missed out on top assignments that put them on a career growth path. An overwhelming number of white men (81%) however, reported they felt fairly assigned. 

Almost two decades since the release of the film Legally Blonde, the comedy — which pointed out inequality in the legal workforce — sadly still seems relevant. 

All women who filled out the survey said they felt they had to be hyper aware of their behavior at work, and were expected to act feminine. Whenever they showed stereotypical “male behaviors,” they didn’t believe it was well received. 

On top of their regular workload, the report showed many women got stuck doing “office housework,” like taking lunch orders for team or taking notes in meetings. These administrative tasks are costing women money, because they detract from the time that could be spent doing work for their paying clients. 

When it comes to money, women in the law industry, a majority of them women of color, noted feeling the gender pay gap. They suspected they got paid less than their colleagues, even though they were just as qualified. 

They were right. According to the most recent report from the bar association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, only 35% of active lawyers in the US were women, and they made less money than men in the field. That was especially evident among the top lawyers for Fortune 500 companies, of which only 26% were women. 

To top it off, one-quarter of female lawyers reported they had experienced sexual harassment at work. Out of everyone who filled out the survey, 70% of both genders reported hearing sexist comments at the office. Regardless of gender, most lawyers thought the taboo of taking parental leave would damage their career. 

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What should law firms and organizations do with all this disheartening information? In the report, Center for WorkLifeLaw provides resources for companies to reverse bias by using their findings to tackle inequality. They include hiring tips like not asking job candidates about their salary history, facilitating performance evaluations and cracking down on supervisors with pay disparities on their teams. 

Bob Carlson, president of the American Bar Association, said in a statement that its guidelines “will lead the way to better employment practices and greater diversity, which will benefit the entire legal profession and our clients.”

Employers across all industries stand to benefit from making an effort to create safer work environments for marginalized people. In April, Starbucks shut down stores to host “racial-bias education” for all employees. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

Who’s next?