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Barriers and Bias

An anthology of biases faced by female lawyers of color in their own words.

“Some of the barriers you can’t do [anything] about—like the (mis)perceptions people have in their own minds about your race or your sex or your background. So you start by having to overcome those negative assumptions, stereotypes, and presumptions. And then there’s the “black tax” of having to demonstrate outsized achievements just to get the same opportunities as everyone else. It’s not by accident that at the firms at which I worked, every single black associate had at least two Ivy League degrees. Majority associates? Not so much.” —late 40s black woman

“The bias that I face as a woman of color has become the elephant in the room. It means that I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, subordinates, even after each success. Sometimes others assume that I am not a threat because they don’t see me as real contender for business or leadership roles. I am not seen as a viable team member until I prove that I am. Then, even once I get buy-in from others, there are those who doubt my abilities or wait for me to fail. I feel like I have to try harder than white [men]. I feel like people don’t give me the same tools to succeed or excel. I have to make my own way without these tools for success. I face adversity even when I try to be normal. Being content is not an option for me.” —early 40s black woman

“I think judges expected me to be dumb and unprepared. They compliment me as if I am an exception. I have judges trying to correct my English skills. I had a prosecutor infer I was “illegal.” I saw this happen to other women of color. One of the smartest women I know stopped practicing in immigration court because of the way she was undermined. The judges would only talk about her hair style and not about the quality of her argument. I have heard judges complain about women being “bitchy.” A judge in our jurisdiction denied a continuance for a woman who had just had a baby, and when she appeared with baby in tow, he held her in contempt. On numerous occasions male colleagues have resubmitted something that I prepared in a case and were granted while I was denied the exact same submission.” —55-year-old Latinx woman

“Many men still see minority women (especially Hispanic women) as docile and assume we will follow their lead in order to keep our job.” —60-year-old Hispanic/Latinx woman

“[Asian women] are seen as quiet, docile, amiable, conflict averse. The opposing lawyer trying to get his way is all the more outraged to find that I do not conform to his preconceived (and wrong) beliefs.” —50-year-old Asian woman

“I was not just a pushy woman but an aggressive black woman. If I suggested a new path, I was told I was being ‘argumentative’ even if the suggestions were valid. If I stayed quiet, I wasn’t adding value. My hair choices were scrutinized. I was called ‘articulate’ and ‘token.’” —39-year-old black woman

“Of course my experiences differ from men’s experiences, but they also differ from the experiences of white women, who, after all, can still be analogized to daughters when those in positions of power are looking for a basis on which to connect with someone. The black and Latina women in the lives of privileged white men and women might be nannies, housekeepers, doormen, or other household employees. We certainly do not feel analogous to their children, and we most assuredly do not feel like their equals.” —mid-40s black woman

“The African American woman was being marginalized because the men perceived her as being in their face and being too outspoken. The Asian American woman couldn’t get noticed, couldn’t get a seat at the table.” —68-year-old Asian woman

“I feel as if men are not counseled about their tone or dismissed when they provide a contrary opinion. I feel as an attorney who is female, I am doing my best not to offend others or be dismissive of different points of view to avoid being perceived as difficult or shrill.” —39-year-old black woman

“I definitely feel that strong women have to be careful. It is definitely a double-edged sword being a strong advocate for your clients, which can alienate your opposing counsel.” —59-year-old Latinx woman

“I was always considered ‘aggressive’ or ‘not a team player’ when I performed just like my male colleagues.” —39-year-old black woman

“Men exhibiting confidence is applauded. Women exhibiting confidence is viewed as cocky or bitchy.” —56-year-old black woman

“I have to prove myself over and over again. I share office space with a white male attorney. Even though my name is first on the door, people presume that I am his secretary. They have never presumed that he is mine.” —early-40s black woman

“I just very recently finished briefing a motion where the other side, white men, had the gall to complain that somehow the referee was favoring my side, an all-female team by the way, led by me. I was able to point out that the referee in the oral argument had interrupted me 22 times as compared to the man only four times. When he referred to me, it was always [by my first name], whereas to the male it was Mr. So-and-So, consistently. So, it’s those little things. It seems little, but it’s not. It indicates the kind of condescension and lack of respect that we, that I feel that as a woman of color, I have to go up against all the time.” —56-year-old Asian woman

“Having to deal with assumptions of inferiority, intellectual or otherwise, and constantly having to prove myself no matter how senior or qualified or experienced I am is something my white male peers do not have to do. It is psychologically exhausting.” —mid-40s black woman

“I think when you’re an outlier and sometimes it is hard to know whether it’s because you’re a woman or because you’re a woman of color or a person of color. Sometimes you just don’t know which one it is.” —56-year-old Asian woman

“Men are seldom questioned when they convey information that the other side may not want to hear, nor are they mistaken for being the court reporter, the girlfriend of the defendant, the social worker, etc.” —55-year-old black woman

“I’m sure no man has been called ‘little boy’ in open court or confused with the court reporter or legal assistant on a frequent basis or told what to wear in court (i.e., no pant suits if you want to appear lady-like).” —42-year-old Latinx woman

“We’ve all asked, ‘Is it me?’ Then, I have a conversation with [other women of color] while it’s happening. Then I say, ‘Okay, I’m not crazy. It’s not just me.’” —68-year-old Asian woman

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