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To Reach True Equity, Black Women Leaders Say More Work Needs to Be Done

December 07, 2023

By Tynekia Garrett

The State of Black Women in the Law
Attendees and panelists at a GWAC event at Holland & Knight LLP discussing the state of Black women in the law. Speakers included Keela Seales, president of GWAC; Kwamina Williford, partner at Holland & Knight; Alfreda Robinson, associate dean at George Washington University Law School; Grace Speights, partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP; Kandis Gibson, president of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia; and Robin Earnest of the Earnest Attorney at Law, LLC.

On December 4, the Greater Washington Area Chapter (GWAC) of the National Bar Association’s (NBA) Women Lawyers Division hosted a panel discussion examining the results of the NBA’s recent report, “The State of Black Women in the Law.”

Released in August, the report shows that while legal organizations are making important strides in fostering more diverse and inclusive workplaces, Black women attorneys remain significantly underrepresented in the profession, continue to face discrimination, and feel the burden of educating others on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) solely because they are Black.

“Representation is not only to see what to aspire to, but it is also a mirror of your own greatness,” said Keala Seales, president of GWAC and staff attorney at the D.C. Court of Appeals. Citing statistics from the American Bar Association, the report points out that Black women make up just under 5 percent of first-year law students but less than 1 percent of law firm partners.

Affinity bar associations play a critical role in supporting Black women attorneys, Seales said. “They provide a connection, mentorship, and a safe space to talk about goals and plan careers,” she added.

Kandis Gibson, president of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia and an associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, agreed. “Affinity groups have hundreds of women ready to help because someone helped them,” Gibson said.

To produce the report, the NBA polled 163 Black women attorneys (members of the association’s Women Lawyers Division) and found that although 66 percent of participants agreed that their workplace is committed to improving diversity, only 65 percent of respondents said they intend to remain at their current organization in two years, “indicating the need to not only continue recruiting and hiring Black women but also the need to improve efforts to support Black talent.”

“Clients are demanding diverse teams, which helps drive business and the opportunity for Black women attorneys to feel valued and included,” said George Washington University Law School Associate Dean for Trial Advocacy Alfreda Robinson, one of the report contributors.

The NBA report was the result of a partnership with Kanarys, a technology company that has developed an objective metric to compare organizations across industries on their DEIB performance — its Industry Benchmarking Score. Survey participants rated their workplaces below average overall on DEIB issues compared to the benchmark, highlighting “the importance of recognizing the intersectional identity and unique experiences Black women face in the legal industry, as the intersectional identity of a Black woman represents how multiplicative effects of race and gender are leading to a less positive experience.”

And while a majority of the participants feel empowered, respected, and supported in their workplaces, many of them have personally experienced (36 percent) or witnessed (41 percent) discrimination or bias at their organization, the report states.

“Incidents of discrimination and bias are amplified when they occur at the intersection of being Black and being a woman,” NBA Women Lawyers Division Chair Desireé C. Boykin writes in the foreword.

Nearly 30 percent of participants reported that white allyship at their organization feels performative, and 47 percent reported often feeling the burden of having to educate people on DEIB. “It is not enough to simply have white allyship at the organization — there needs to be specific measures in place to mitigate bias and address discrimination. Otherwise, it is superficial and performative,” the report states.

In addition to discussing the study results, the panelists at the GWAC program also explored how the findings can be used to improve DEIB initiatives to support women of color.

Recommendations in the NBA report for organizations seeking positive DEIB gains include:

  • Invest in hiring more Black women for mid-level and senior/executive positions. This effort involves tracking the talent pipeline of Black women and their hiring outcomes as well as educating recruiters and decision makers on the foundational concepts of DEIB. Firms and corporations can also ensure diverse hiring panels and interviewers. Local affinity organizations can support hiring goals.
  • Intentionally work to create strategic initiatives that retain Black women and address promotional inequities within the organization. Performance and progress metrics should be tracked and monitored to better understand Black women’s experiences.
  • Foster an inclusive culture and equitable work environment. This is achieved by establishing trust through transparent communication and following through with commitments.
  • Expose Black women at the high school level to career options in the legal profession through programs ranging from one-day courses and moot court competitions to summer camps.

Tynekia Garrett, a law student at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, is one of the D.C. Bar’s writers in residence for 2023–2024.

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