Study: Legal Profession Rife with Racial and Gender Bias

When organizations fail to address cases of real or perceived discrimination in the workplace, employees often turn to lawyers. So perhaps it’s ironic that a large new study from the American Bar Association finds that the legal profession itself has a real problem when it comes to preventing racial and gender bias in the workplace.

The study, titled You Can’t Change What You Can’t See and based on a survey of 2,827 lawyers, finds that many women and people of color working in the profession felt they were held to higher standards of performance than their white male colleagues. It was conducted on behalf of the ABA by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

Women of color reported the highest level of bias in nearly all categories, the study finds. Sixty-three percent said they had to go “above and beyond” their workplace colleagues in order to receive the same level of recognition, and 67 percent said they were held to higher standards. Nearly 70 percent of women of color reported being paid less than colleagues with similar experience and seniority, compared to 60 percent of white women and only 36 percent of white men.

“The implication of this report is that women and people of color have been invited into these high-stakes, high-status workplaces, like the law, but often are expected to play a very specific role,” Joan C. Williams, a professor at Hastings and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, told the ABA Journal. “They have to prove themselves more than white men, and are often expected to be worker bees who don’t grab the limelight or the highest compensation. And the same mistake can be more costly for a woman or person of color than the identical mistake for a white man.”

The study also reveals that the legal industry is rife with sexual harassment and innuendo: not only did 70 percent of respondents report hearing sexist comments, stories or jokes at work, but 25 percent of female lawyers said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. Additionally, one in eight white women and one in 10 women of color said they’d lost job opportunities because they stood up to or rejected advances by sexual harassers.

What to do? The report recommends a number of steps for law firms and other organizations within the profession to take, including abolishing questions about previous salary for job candidates, standardizing job interview questions for all candidates and keeping an eye on supervisors to ensure there’s no consistent disparities by demographic group. A “Bias Interrupters Toolkit” included with the report contains more recommendations.

“The solution is to interrupt bias in business systems so you stop constantly transmitting bias in hiring, assignments, performance evaluations,” Williams told the ABA Journal.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.