Sunday, November 12, 2006

Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms

That's the name of a new study just released by the American Bar Association regarding the experience of women of color in law firms with 25 or more lawyers.

What did the study find? One of the study co-chairs, Paulette Brown said: "I thought the numbers would not be good. I didn't know they'd be so startling."

More from a report on Law.Com by Susan Hansen of The Minority Law Journal:
Of women attorneys of color, 44 percent reported being passed over for desirable assignments, compared with 39 percent of white women, 25 percent of men of color and only 2 percent of white men. (The study covered law firms of 25 lawyers or more; more than 1,000 lawyers responded to the online questionnaire.)

Nearly two thirds of those women -- 62 percent -- said that they had been excluded from formal and informal networking opportunities, compared with 4 percent of white men.

Almost half of women of color -- 49 percent -- reported being subjected to demeaning comments or other types of harassment at their firms.

The examples of such harassment that respondents described in written comments and follow-up focus groups would make even the most vocal critic of political correctness cringe.

One Native American lawyer, for instance, recalled being asked where her tomahawk was and whether she would mind being called Pocahontas. A Korean associate recounted that her firm's managing partner introduced her to a Korean client with the words, "She eats kimchi just like you." Soon after, the managing partner left a message on her voicemail in which he tried to sound like an Asian speaker. Another Asian-American woman reported hearing herself described as "a dragon lady" at her firm, while an African-American associate said that she was labeled "an angry black woman."

To [study co-chair Arin] Reeves, the sheer number of minority women reporting those kinds of comments was a major surprise.

"We've sort of been in this mode where [law firms] think they've left this kind of harassment in the past," says Reeves. Unfortunately, she adds, the study shows that firms still have a lot of basic work to do to make women of color feel welcome -- such as making sure they're in compliance with anti-harassment laws.

Reeves may have been surprised but I'm not.

There is open hostility and rising fear out there regarding the rate of change in America .. change that has pushed women into the majority among undergraduates in college ... change that is moving America consistently in the direction of greater population diversity and a reversal of the definition of "majority" and "minority" in some states (California, Texas) and many urban areas (Washington, DC) ... change that is moving America toward greater tolerance, and, ultimately, acceptance of sexual minorities.

This fear and hostility often reveals itself in the treatment of those perceived as less powerful ... women of color, gays and lesbians, immigrants, geeks in schools controlled by jocks, etc.

These folks are like the canaries in the coal mine. Evidence of continued intolerance toward the less powerful (the least of us), especially where such intolerance is accepted or rationalized (whether by faith, homeland security or otherwise), is a powerful suggestion that all is not well in our democracy.

We who fail to see the signs, those who refuse to speak out against intolerance/injustice where ever it appears, may yet reap a bitter harvest, as those who have power act to keep it and we who remained silent end up like the women in The Hand Maid's Tale consigned to certain roles by the will and force of "the majority."

"The years forget our errors, and forgive our sins, but they punish our inaction with living death." Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living

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