Talk to almost any black woman and ask her what kind of discrimination she runs up against the most: prejudice against minorities, or prejudice against women? She will probably say, “Gender discrimination, you stupid, stupid man.” I imagine you’d get a similar answer from non-black female minorities as well.

You’ll see a lot of crap if you are a minority male trying to excel professionally in this country. But a lot of it is subtle. When society craps all over women, there is no subtlety. “Show me your birth certificate.” > “Show me your [breasts].”

A new study from Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC), which we mentioned in Morning Docket, confirms what would be obvious to any man married to a woman of color (indicating). What’s slightly more surprising is that things are marginally better for minority women lawyers when they are in-house as opposed to when they’re working at a private law firm.

Actually, when you think about it, of course the in-house environment provides slightly fewer obstacles to minority females….

CCWC surveyed women working in the law departments of Fortune 1000 companies. Here are the top-line results, reported in Corporate Counsel:

About 55 percent of the respondents indicated that their departments were less than 20 percent diverse. Robinson says that 16 percent said they were the only person of color in their department. But survey respondents found their gender to be more of an obstacle to advancement than their race. Almost 52 percent said that being a woman was a significant barrier, while about 35 percent indicated that race impeded advancement.

Now, as a black man I’m obligated to point out that at least historically black women don’t experience racism in the same way that black men do. White society doesn’t tend to view black women as threats that need to be stopped.

But this study captures the fact that being viewed as “non-threatening” is not necessarily a good thing when somebody is trying to advance professionally. Being patronized at work makes the climb up the ladder daunting.

Though at least white women have the option (Faustian though it may be) of being the “office hottie” or whatever. Women are often judged on their looks even when they are trying to work, and white women (of a certain body type) are at least positioned to look the part — white women, and then women who can most easily look like white women. Many women of color are judged on the same unfair metrics that other women are judged, and then even that unfair double-standard holds them to unattainable body-image standards based on a Eurasian definition of beauty.

Put simply, it sucks.

But it sucks slightly less if you are in-house, per Corporate Counsel:

Because so many in-house attorneys started their legal careers at law firms, [CCWC CEO Laurie Robinson] says CCWC was “able to capture the benefit of being able to compare the two experiences.” She found that 67.2 percent of women of color preferred the corporate environment to law firm work with respect to the atmosphere of inclusion.

Corporations often offer more opportunities for interaction with clients and senior management, says Robinson. Respondents reported wanting to be part of the team, she says, and they found the corporate legal environment more conducive to achieving a feeling of inclusion.

“Being valued” was rated the number one factor in current job satisfaction.

Those numbers right there should be embarrassing to Biglaw firms. How can you even pretend to be concerned about retention of qualified female attorneys of color when over 65% of them feel like they are being treated more fairly if they go in-house?

On the Careerist, Vivia Chen tries to explain these numbers:

So what gives? One theory is that there’s less jockeying in-house because there’s less to jockey for. “Most in-house departments have the GC, a few division and practice group leaders, and everyone else,” says recruiter Gloria Sandrino, a former lawyer and law professor. “The lack of advancement opportunities places everyone in more of an equal-playing field — there is no track to partnership!”

Diversity also has a longer history in corporations. “Corporations have dealt with inclusion for over 30 years,” says diversity consultant Sharon Jones, who’s worked both as an associate and as an in-house lawyer. Jones adds that there’s less politics in corporations when it comes to work assignments: “The work is there, and you have the opportunity to do it.” But getting good work assignment at firms is “a big challenge for people of color and women,” she says. “And if you don’t get good work, you don’t get ahead.”

I think the second factor cannot be emphasized enough. In the Biglaw environment, you have to be given work as you develop. You can’t do important work for the big client unless the partner who controls that business gives you some of that work. Whether you call him a mentor, a rabbi, a champion, whatever, you need somebody — somebody who is almost always a man — to give you an opportunity.

In-house, you can take work. You can go out and find ways to be useful and save money for your company without waiting for somebody to give you the right client billing number. Sure, if you are one of those meek and mild types (man or woman), you are going to get run over in the in-house environment just like you got run over at a law firm. But if you are an aggressive woman, you can get in there and make yourself indispensable to your company. It’s all about the bottom line; you save the company money, you win.

Relatively speaking. In-house is “better” for women of color than a law firm in the same way that spending hours with relaxer and a hot comb is “more natural” than having a weave. It’s still incredibly difficult to overcome all of the ridiculous obstacles on the path to career success.

Are there Biglaw firms that will look at a study like this and recognize they have a problem? I’m not going to be holding my breath.

Study: In-House Minority Women Face Obstacles, but Feel Empowered [Corporate Counsel]
Sex or Race? [The Careerist]


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