Report: People of color and women still face bias at work

Professor Odunsi of University at Buffalo

BY PATRICK CONNELLY republished from Buffalo Law Journal, Buffalo Business First 

“We’re really talking about inclusiveness not only on the job but in events firms have. The biggest issue is part of the culture of a law firm is one that is very social in that assignments can be assigned based off of relationships with particular partners.”
Tolulope Odunsi, Professor of Law
University at Buffalo

Published October 1, 2018

Gender and racial bias still exist in the legal profession and have an impact on “everyday interactions in legal workplaces,” according to a new report.

“You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial and Gender in the Legal Profession” was released in September by the American Bar Association and Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Surveying more than 2,800 attorneys, researchers compared the experiences of men and women of color to those of Caucasians. Bias toward female and minority attorneys is prevalent in hiring, performance evaluations, mentoring, distribution of assignments, access to networking opportunities, promotions and compensation, the report found.

“We’re really talking about inclusiveness not only on the job but in events firms have,” said Tolulope Odunsi, president of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York and a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

“The biggest issue is part of the culture of a law firm is one that is very social in that assignments can be assigned based off of relationships with particular partners,” she said.

Networking activities such as golf outings and parties at country clubs can stress a person who hasn’t had exposure to those experiences in the past, Odunsi said.

“I didn’t grow up around that culture, so networking at those events and attending those events prompted a little bit of anxiety for me,” she said.

The report said female attorneys are:

  • Held to higher standards than colleagues;
  • Often pressured to take on “non-career-enhancing ‘office housework’ ” such as note-taking;
  • Had their competency or commitment questioned after having a child

The findings are “not surprising,” said Kara Addelman, local chapter president of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York.

“Employers have to keep implicit bias in mind at every stage of professional development,” said Addelman, partner at Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak LLP in Buffalo. “With the number of qualified and talented women and people of color graduating from law school, there is no reason why there should not be better representation in management and leadership positions. The legal industry must do better.”

Women of color suffer even more bias: The report said these attorneys are less likely to have equal access to high-quality assignments and promotions and are paid less than colleagues of similar skill level and experience. Additionally, 25 percent of the women surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace or unwanted sexual comments, physical contact or romantic advances.

To curb bias, the report suggests “easily implementable, measurable tweaks to existing workplace systems to interrupt racial and gender bias in law firms.” Tips include:

  • Using metrics to analyze hiring pools and applicants, limit referral hiring (i.e., friends of friends);
  • Advertising job opportunities to diverse candidates where they are more likely to become aware of openings;
  • Evaluate resumes on a structured scale while omitting family obligations and removing demographical information before reviewing;
  • Empowering people involved in these processes to “spot and interrupt bias.”

In hiring and assignment-making, Odunsi said firms “need to look at who is at the table” and open up more opportunities to minorities and women.

global goals

Sustainable Development Goals:

5. Gender equality: Empowering women and achieve gender equality

10. Reduced inequalities: Reducing inequalities found within the community