For Legal Employers: How to Minimize the Impact of Double-Barreled Bias Affecting Women of Color Attorneys

Topics: Attorneys of Color, Biases, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Gender Equity, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Workforce, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Perseverance, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

women of color

Kristen D. Hardy, legal counsel at a Fortune 1000 manufacturing corporation based in the U.S., recently wrote Don’t Forget about Women Lawyers of Color in Wisconsin Lawyer, the official publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Based on her own experience in her legal career and her time as the immediate past president of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers, Hardy urges legal employers to pay attention to the career needs of women of color. Because women attorneys of color don’t squarely fit within traditional employer affinity and employee resource groups, Hardy wanted to spotlight the common biases that contribute to the dearth of women of color in the legal profession.

Many times, for example, women of color are noticeably missing in diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as discussions tailored to gender, race or ethnicity. Thus, the nuanced experiences of minority women become lost within well-meaning efforts to increase or address diversity at firms and corporations.

What is double-barreled bias?To address this gap, Hardy discusses the double-barreled biases faced by women of color. She describes this bias as a “haphazard blend of gender stereotypes and ostensible leadership characteristics that gum together to form what feels like a Catch-22 for women” regardless of their race, ethnicity, or national origin because the “traditional gender roles of women are at odds with the necessary attributes of a good leader.”

attorneys of color

Kristen D. Hardy

Double-barreled bias is experienced, perhaps exclusively, by women of color. “Double-barreled bias often rears its ugly head via a myriad of tired tropes and stereotypes: Black or African-American women are regularly pegged as angry or shrill when they become expressive; Latinas are similarly stereotyped as quick tempered and excitable; Asian women are viewed as passive or invisible.”

Impact of double-barreled bias — The bottom line is that dealing with these biases every day in the status quo environment without disruption and structural mechanisms to reduce their impact leads to high attrition because it is so emotionally and mentally exhausting. “And if women attorneys of color are fortunate enough to become leaders within organizations, they are likely forced to contend with double-barreled bias,” Hardy explains. “This is conceivably why many women of color become disinterested in leadership positions.” Citing her own experiences, Hardy says that at just five years out of law school, she has earned the responsibility to lead anti-bribery/anti-corruption, international trade, and integrity practice groups as an in-house attorney at two international corporations. Indeed, she credits her ability to acquire her breadth of experience through perseverance, adaptability, working through adversity, and proactively demonstrating fearlessness in communicating her skills.

This type of bias is also reflected in the overall numbers. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, “minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, a pattern that holds across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions” despite the increase in representation of all women lawyers in recent years. Moreover, women of color make up a meager 8.08% of U.S. firm lawyers (compared to 35.7% of all women and 16% of all minorities); and only 20% of the summer associates’ classes of firms nationwide (compared to 51% of all women and 35% of all minorities, as of 2018).

Recommendations to address double-barreled bias — Legal employers need to make sure that their inclusion programs are focusing on this bias, and the first step is acknowledging that it exists, Hardy says. She advocates for talent and people managers to consider how racial disparities may affect women of color.

Hardy also urges employers to avoid treating women’s career needs as a one-size-fits-all approach. Women are not a monolith, and employers need to appreciate the nuances of various unique career experiences and challenges that women of color face. For those in power positions, enacting plans to remove barriers, including stereotypes are key.

Finally, she outlines that mentoring and sponsoring women of color are a must to increase representation at the senior levels of the industry. Mentoring is needed in the first and second years out of law school; and sponsorship, particularly in law firms, becomes essential at about five years out of school and beyond.

For Hardy, more intentional effort about acknowledging women of color is critical. “Only then will we see gains, at all levels, for all women,” Hardy explains. “And only then will we be closer to making this profession as diverse as the world we live in. The voices of all women must be heard.”