The Power of Inclusion
The trick to retaining women of color? They must feel like part of our industry
By Ericka Fang
The number of attorneys of color in the legal profession as a whole is small, and, thus, the number of women attorneys of color in the profession is even smaller. Over the past 10 years, the employment trends for attorneys of color and women attorneys of color have remained largely unchanged.
According to the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey, in 2008, 68 percent of practicing attorneys were men and 32 percent were women. Ten years later, the numbers have changed only slightly, with 64 percent of the practicing attorneys noted as men and 36 percent noted as women. If we dig a little deeper and focus on diversity within the legal profession, we find the following:
• In 2008, four percent of the practicing attorneys were African-American; in 2018, the percentage increased to five percent.
• In 2008, two percent of the practicing attorneys were Asian; in 2018, the percentage had increased to three percent.
• In 2008, three percent of the practicing attorneys were Hispanic; in 2018, the percentage had increased to five percent.
Lately, however, I have witnessed numerous women of color who are qualified and skilled attorneys leaving both the legal profession and the insurance industry, so I took the opportunity to explore the causes of their departures from our industry and discovered some common themes. (It is important to note that I also spoke with women of color who have remained in their positions, so as to provide a well-rounded discussion of this topic.)
Based on my conversations with these women, it is clear that diversity and inclusion are critical factors. Most companies understand the importance and benefit of having a diverse workforce. However, it seems that “inclusion” is the component that is often overlooked because the most common reason female attorneys of color are leaving the insurance and legal industries is the lack of inclusion they experienced at their respective companies.
During my discussions, I discovered that the lack of inclusion concerned three key areas: promotions/compensation, mentoring, and opportunities. It is important to note that these issues impact all working women, but because female attorneys of color comprise a small percentage of the workforce at law firms and insurance companies, these issues have a greater impact on them than on women more generally speaking.
Promotions and Compensation
Promotions and compensation was a hot topic during my discussions. Many women advised that they did not feel included in the company because they were passed over for a promotion or when they discovered that they were not being compensated equally compared to their colleagues, despite having the same levels of experience.
Obviously, companies consider a wide variety of factors in the promotion process. However, the women I spoke with reported that they had been at the company longer, produced greater results, and had received positive reviews—but someone else still got the promotion. In fact, many of the women felt that, most of the time, promotions were given to professionals who had been with the company for shorter periods of time. As a result, many of these women chose to pursue other opportunities.
Interestingly, the women I interviewed (not just women of color) spoke freely about their compensation. Traditionally, in the past, women did not speak about their salaries, but I believe in the age of social media and the push for fair compensation, many women are becoming more transparent with each other about this topic. It appears that women speak about their salaries as a means of determining whether they are being fairly compensated for the work they do and their levels of experience, which translates into being treated fairly as employees.
One woman advised that when she learned that her colleagues with the same level of experience were getting paid far less than she was earning, she spoke with them and encouraged them to speak with their supervisors to request pay increases based on their levels of experience and work product. Happily, the company responded by increasing the pay of her colleagues.
However, other situations yielded different results. One employee, upon discovering that her colleague with far less experience was getting paid more, decided to leave the company rather than have a discussion with her supervisor, deciding that it was an indication she was not valued. Thus, it appears fair compensation and a transparent promotion structure would contribute to creating an inclusive work environment.
Repeatedly, I heard the following statements: “I wish there was someone in the company who looked like me, from whom I could learn,” or “My company had no mentors who were of color, so I knew I would not be there long term.”
Mentoring is important in any company because it pairs an employee with an individual with more experience within the company, and that mentor is in a position to help the employee navigate the company’s ins and outs. Mentors are ultimately in the position to help employees succeed not only in their positions, but also within the company as a whole.
The lack of mentors of color within a company may, in turn, subtly communicate to employees that the company may not have been successful in mentoring prior employees of color who could have risen to the level where they could mentor others, or that the company simply did not care to do so. Although we know (and hope) that many of the women’s previous employers did not intentionally create this environment, unfortunately, that was the perception of the women with whom I spoke.
As such, many of the women left their positions are now with companies where people of color thrive and rise to management/executive positions. It is also important to note that while the women did not feel there needed to be mentors of color for every area of the company, the overwhelming opinion was that there had to be some mentors of color in the company to truly create an environment of inclusion and belonging.
When discussing why women of color left their positions, some advised that they were not provided the same opportunities as others. The women explained that they wanted to be involved in speaking engagements, attend mediations on behalf of their companies, and participate in trials. However, when the opportunities presented themselves on the matters they were handling, someone else was assigned to complete those tasks. Consequently, they felt that there was a lack of opportunity for their professional growth.
In all, what these women had to say was both eye-opening and encouraging. The discussions were eye-opening because they all had specific reasons for their departures and were able to provide concrete examples of their experiences. The interviews were also encouraging because the issues raised were matters that could be readily addressed by law firms and insurance companies.
An inclusive workforce would be one in which employees are provided with fair compensation, a clear promotion structure, diverse mentorship, and opportunities for professional growth and development.