Black Women in Law Face Gender Discrimination and Racial Bias

Black Businesswoman working on digital tablet in hotel lobby

Many people assume that lawyers — both in-house and in firms — live comfortable lives and earn a lot of money. But if you ask a lawyer, especially a woman of color, you may find they experience a life very different from the stereotype. A recent study by the American Bar Association and the Center for WorkLife Law shows that black women in law (and other women of color) continue to face gender discrimination and racial bias that keeps them from reaching those lofty expectations.

In this blog post, I will review a new report that shows gender discrimination and racial bias continues to plague the legal industry. I will discuss what gender and race discrimination looks like in high-paying fields like law, and what black women in the law can do to help fight back against the problems in the industry.

ABA Study Reveals Gender Discrimination and Racial Bias Among Lawyers

It is a known fact that women and people of color are under-represented at the highest levels of the legal field. Women are less likely to be named partner in large firms, and people of color aren't given access to the high-profile cases they need to build a reputation. But gender discrimination and racial bias can be hard to quantify.

That's why, in 2016, the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association came together with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco to study it. The team put together a survey of 2,827 in-house and firm attorneys, including nearly 600 who provided substantive comments, to review how gender discrimination and racial bias affects the work lives of four categories of attorneys:

  • White Men
  • White Women
  • Men of Color
  • Women of Color

The study confirms widespread gender and racial bias across all 7 basic workplace processes:

  • Hiring
  • Performance evaluations
  • Mentoring
  • Assignments
  • Networking opportunities
  • Pay
  • Promotion

In most cases, black women (and other women of color) reported the highest rates of discrimination and unequal treatment. However, white women and men of color also reported significant challenges to advancing within the legal industry. The study, "You Can't Change What You Can't See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession", summarizes its findings saying:

"This report is the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive picture of how implicit gender and racial bias -- documented in social science for decades -- plays out in everyday interactions in legal workplaces and affects basic workplace processes such as hiring and compensation."

Types of Implicit Discrimination Within the Legal Industry

The report summarizes the gender discrimination and racial bias within the legal industry into categories:


Women of color, white women, and men of color all reported having to go "above and beyond" to receive the same recognition as their colleagues. Black women reported being held to higher standards than their colleagues 32% more than white men.

They also reported being mistaken for administrative staff, court personnel, or even janitors 50% more often than white men. These cases of mistaken identity also affected white women (44% higher) and men of color (23% higher).


The survey also revealed that black women and white women report pressure to walk a tightrope of gender expression. They are pressured to behave in feminine ways and get backlash for acting in masculine ways. They are also asked to perform more "office housework" and administrative tasks like taking notes for meetings.

Maternal Wall

The report also revealed a "flexibility stigma surrounding leave" affecting all groups -- even white men. Women of all races reported being treated worse after they had children including:

  • Being passed over for promotions
  • Given "mommy track" low-quality assignments
  • Being demoted
  • Being paid less
  • Treated unfairly for working part-time or with a flexible schedule
  • Having their commitment or competence questioned after having children

Half of black women responding to the survey agreed that taking family leave would negatively affect their career. 57% of white women, 47% of men of color, and 42% of white men felt the same way.

Gender and Racial Pay Gap

The study also revealed that, in addition to the well-reported gender pay gap, the legal industry faces racial bias in compensation. Women of color believed their pay to be comparable to colleagues 31% less often than men. When asked if they get paid less than colleagues of similar experience and skill, 31% more black women said yes. (White women clocked in at 24% on these two questions.) When it came to fair compensation, it didn't matter whether black women lawyers were working in-house or in law firms. The compensation bias was across the board.

Sexual Harassment

No study about gender discrimination and racial bias would be complete without a survey of sexual harassment in the workplace. About 25% or women reported unwelcome sexual harassment at work (compared to 11% of men of color and 7% of white men). One in 8 white women and 1 in 10 women of color even reported losing career opportunities after saying no to sexual advances at work. However, 70% of all respondents reported experiencing sexist comments, stories, and jokes in the legal profession.

All together, this study casts the legal industry in a grim light. Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law told the ABA Journal:

“The implication of this report is that women and people of color have been invited into these high-stakes, high-status workplaces, like the law, but often are expected to play a very specific role. . . . They have to prove themselves more than white men, and are often expected to be worker bees who don’t grab the limelight or the highest compensation. And the same mistake can be more costly for a woman or person of color than the identical mistake for a white man.”

Black Women Lawyers Can Fight Back Against Gender Discrimination in the Law

When implicit bias and small-scale discrimination create disparities at work, the study suggests there may be systemic changes law firms can make to change the culture. The study report includes Bias Interrupters Tools for law firms and in-house attorneys. These strategies can help combat the baked-in assumptions that cause gender discrimination and racial bias to continue throughout the industry. The details of these tool kits will be discussed in a future blog post.

The good news is that black women and others facing gender discrimination and racial bias in the legal profession do have the power to fight back. Federal law prohibits the kind of discrimination in hiring, pay, and workplace treatment documented in the study. When black women find themselves passed over for promotion or facing the choice between a sexual encounter and the loss of a job, they can turn to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or a private gender discrimination attorney for help enforcing their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced employment discrimination attorneys can help. We will review your situation and help you plan a strategy to confront gender discrimination and racial bias in your law firm and pursue options in or out of court. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney.

Free Case Evaluation

Speak with our team, for free, about your legal situation.

New York Office 24 Union Square East , Fourth Floor | New York, NY 10003
Los Angeles Office 10100 Santa Monica Blvd. , Suite 300 | Los Angeles, CA 90067
Philadelphia Office 1500 Market Street , 12th Floor, East Tower | Philadelphia, PA 19102
Manhasset Office 36 Maple Place | Manhasset, NY 11030
Telephone: (212) 353-8700 | Facsimile: (212) 353-1708 |