Remember that Cheerios commercial from a few years ago? It starred a black dad, a white mom and their biracial daughter. You might have heard about it — and the reactions to it.

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Diversity Dialogue

What Kids Can Teach Lawyers About Diversity and Representation

Remember that Cheerios commercial from a few years ago? It starred a black dad, a white mom and their biracial daughter. You might have heard about it — and the reactions to it.

Many Americans were indifferent. Some Americans were disgusted. And me? I was ecstatic at that ad — and so many others from State Farm, Swiffer and Old Navy — that feature interracial couples and multiracial families. I feel actual joy because I see a family portrayed in the media that looks just like mine. (Well, somewhat. We are less model-esque.)

“Finally,” I think. “We are part of the mainstream narrative. We are represented.”

THE POWER OF REPRESENTATION

It’s a powerful thing, representation: the realization that people like you are part of a narrative larger than yourself. And it struck me recently as to how early that feeling takes hold, and how it can impact the rest of your life, including, say, your tenure at a law firm.

My children, like the children in those ads, are half black and half white. Because of that — and considering only 7 percent of the country identifies as multiracial — they almost never see people who look like them represented in media. So imagine my 4-year-old daughter’s delight when she saw just that.

A few weeks ago, we were at a supermarket in Chicago. All of a sudden, my daughter leaped out of her stroller and shouted, “Look, Mama! It’s me!” She was right. There in front of us was a box of Pampers diapers with a boy on it who really did look just like her: light brown skin, hazel eyes and a curly blond afro. She was delighted.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-ESTEEM

See, people like to see people who look just like them. “Just like me” is even the basis of one of the strongest implicit biases we have, in-group bias. We prefer people who look like us, who belong to our “tribe,” so to speak. We do it for trust, protection, safety and belonging. But most crucially, according to research, we do it for self-esteem.

Seeing someone who looks like us increases our own self-esteem. We have a more positive impression of people who look like us, increasing our own positive impression of ourselves.

If you want diverse people to be a part of your organization, then there must be people at the top who look like the people you want to attract.

So what does this have to do with representation? Self-esteem, I think, is a slightly different rationale for increasing diversity and encouraging inclusion, and another explanation of why our efforts keep stalling. If you want diverse people to be a part of your organization, then there must be people at the top who look like the people you want to attract, and who, in turn, can build up that self-esteem and sense of belonging for the diverse people joining your organization.

If those people aren’t at the top, then the people coming in at the bottom are less likely to stay because they don’t see a space for them above.

THE NEED FOR INCREASED LEADERSHIP REPRESENTATION

We know the legal profession is not doing well in diversity, particularly at the leadership level. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) 2016 diversity report, minorities constitute 22.72 percent of associates in large law firms but only 8.05 percent of partners. The number for minority women is even starker — only 2.76 percent of partners are minority women.

Meanwhile, women account for 45 percent of associates at law firms. However, they only account for 22.13 percent of partners. Crucially, among nonequity partners who graduated law school in 2004 and later, 62 percent were men and only 38 percent were women.

We know the many reasons for the continued lack of diverse leadership in the legal profession. Increasing representation isn’t an easy task, but the reality is, if we want to increase diversity in our profession, we have to increase the representation of our leadership as well. It’s a cycle, vicious and unending. And it makes a difference, particularly since our lack of diversity seems to exclude the many groups who aspire to belong to our profession.

From the 2010 ABA Next Steps Report:

The legal profession has … historically provided access to income and wealth commensurate with the ‘American Dream.’ Historically, racial and ethnic groups, women and other marginalized groups have recognized that a law degree accelerates their social and economic mobility. If any part of our profession — especially the vast and powerful fields of private practice — fails to be diverse and inclusive, we are sending meaningful symbolic messages to members of underrepresented groups, especially those of lower socioeconomic status.

“Meaningful symbolic messages.” My 4-year-old daughter understands exactly what those are. Representation matters. Self-esteem matters. We all want to see ourselves represented, no matter how old we are, whether in a law firm board room or on a box of Pampers diapers.

So if you remain frustrated as to why our profession’s diversity numbers are stalled, even after all the time and money and effort spent on diversity initiatives, look at how many women and minorities are represented in the positions of power. How many are on compensation committees and management committees? How many are recognized as powerful sponsors? How many are given credit for high-profile clients? How many are marketed as the key partners for the firm? How many are even there in the first place?

Kids understand why representation matters. So should we.

About the Author

Michelle Silverthorn is the Diversity and Education Director for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. Through the Commission's online platform, 2Civility, Silverthorn works on blog posts, social networking sites, and online discussion groups focusing on legal education, diversity and young lawyers. She also works with law schools, law students and other legal groups, developing education courses and workshops.

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