Last December, the legal profession was shaken by the release of a picture picture of a large New York law firm’s all-white, almost all-male partner class. The response was strong — letters and counter-letters and counter-letters to counter-letters. ." data-share-imageurl="" style="position:fixed;top:0px;left:0px;">
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Diversity Dialogue

Create an Authentic Workspace Where Diversity Matters

Last December, the legal profession was shaken by the release of a picture picture of a large New York law firm’s all-white, almost all-male partner class. The response was strong — letters and counter-letters and counter-letters to counter-letters.

But as someone who teaches diversity and inclusion, I wasn’t surprised by the picture. Because it broadcasts a wider truth about diversity, obvious in the legal profession, but just as easily seen across corporate America. That we pay lip service (and a lot of money) to diversity, but we still haven’t done the hard work to make that diversity matter.

The legal profession is 85 percent white, which is better than 10 years when it was 89 percent white. It’s 64 percent male, which again is better than it was 10 years ago when it was 68 percent male. And in large U.S. law firms — like the one that released the picture lineup — 77 percent of partners are men, and 91 percent of partners are white. Those white male partners are the ones with the clients, the ones with the access to power, and the ones who continually reinforce the all-white-male partnership ranks, year in, and year out.

IT STARTS EARLY

How does it work? Let’s meet Dave and Sondra. Dave is a young white man. Sondra is a young black woman. They both graduated from different law schools at the same time. They go to work for the same large law firm. They enter the firm at the same level, in the same practice group — but then something changes.

It starts with the assignments. The projects and assignments that Dave is getting are more complex and trickier than the ones Sondra’s getting. Because Dave is meeting new people from socializing. He’s socializing with those white male partners. They’ve invited him out places, they meet up for drinks in their neighborhoods, they stop by his office to catch up, talk about their work, and offer him new work.

Meanwhile, Sondra doesn’t get invited to these casual social meet-ups. The white male partners don’t drop by her office to see if she’s busy and wants a chat. She reaches out and to ask what she can help with, but it always seems to be on her to do the work. When she’s wrapped up a project, she’ll hear that she did good work, but then there’s no follow-up.

Then Dave and Sondra get their evaluations. They’re both good, but Dave gets a lot more positive growth-oriented feedback, while Sondra’s is a lot more neutral — it isn’t really positive; it isn’t really negative. Just says keep doing what she’s doing.

Sondra continues to do her work. She bills and bills, but she doesn’t really feel like a part of the workplace; she doesn’t feel supported. She has a lot of new ideas but when she brings them up to leadership, they don’t go anywhere. She keeps billing the hours, she goes to lunches and dinners, and she makes sure to attend the business development trainings and the affinity group meetings.

Then a leadership position opens up — maybe it’s a partner position, or a promotion to get on the partner track. Sondra thinks she’s going to get it, but Dave gets it, not her. Sondra asks why, and she’s told the truth: “No one knows you. No one talks about you in meetings. Your evaluations aren’t great, and there were some concerns about your performance.”

Naturally, Sondra protests — she’s never heard any concerns about her performance before, she goes to all the events, she’s a mentor, and she’s even on the firm’s front page touting diversity.

It’s why our diversity numbers will never change. Because diversity without authenticity is diversity without teeth. It’s diversity without work.

And they say, “That’s not enough. How did you not know that? Look at Dave, he got great work, and went to the meetings that mattered. He had the right clients, knew people around here, and partners talk about him — they promote him. He’s clearly committed to success, and you really aren’t leaning in enough. Partner isn’t really where you’re going to be. Here are some other ideas for you.”

So Dave gets promoted and Sondra decides that she’s going to have settle with the place that she is in — or leave.

WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?

Now why did Dave get the work and Sondra didn’t? Why was Dave given more opportunities and Sondra was not?

The reason is race. Race is the reason Dave gets promoted and Sondra does not.

It’s because the white partners like Dave. They’re comfortable with Dave. They talk to Dave. They take Dave out. They promote Dave. They hang with Dave. They give Dave their clients. They give Dave the good work. They give Dave the growth-oriented feedback.

But not Sondra. They’re too uncomfortable around Sondra. She doesn’t talk like they do. She didn’t go to the same schools that they did. She doesn’t live in the same neighborhoods as them. She doesn’t like the same sports they do. Socializing with Sondra feels like work. They don’t tell her how she does in her evaluations because they’re worried about offending her or saying the wrong thing. And there are some whispers, however faint, of the phrase “affirmative action.” All their behaviors and statements send a clear message — Dave belongs here; Sondra does not.

But there’s a twist. See the story doesn’t end there. Because Sondra knows all of this. She knows that when a white executive says, “I don’t see color,” that’s not true at all. He sees color in the neighborhood he grew up in, in the neighborhoods he chooses to live in, in the friends he has, in the books on his bookshelf, in the schools his kids go to, in the music he listens to, in the shows he watches, in his doctor, his dentist, his accountant, in the lawyers he promotes in his firm.

So here’s what Sondra does. Like so many minorities working in a majority workplace, she has to put on a mask. She code-switches. She lives a double life. She constantly vets her thoughts, checks her behaviors, corrects her actions, works and works and works, trying to conform to workplace norms and values that won’t change for her and were decided when people who looked like her weren’t even allowed in the room. But it still doesn’t work. Because the mask doesn’t fit her. It was never designed to.

Sondra doesn’t just leave because of the exclusion. She leaves because of the mask as well. She leaves because while the firm says they want diversity, they want it without authenticity. They want it with assimilation.

YOU HAVE TO WANT CHANGE

It’s why our diversity numbers will never change. Because diversity without authenticity is diversity without teeth. It’s diversity without work. It’s diversity that doesn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. It’s diversity that doesn’t make anyone change. If you are a white male leader asking yourself why the workplace isn’t getting more diverse, then I want you to be honest. Do you want the workplace to change, or do you want it to the stay the same? A workplace where diverse people must assimilate, where diverse people must mask, because inevitably, do you know what will happen? Those same diverse people will leave.

It’s easy to hire diversity. It’s much harder to make that diversity matter. We have to create workplaces where diversity does matter, where people like Sondra can enter the workplace, take off their masks, be seen for their authentic selves, and be told, “There is space for you to succeed. I am willing to do the hard work to make it happen. Because you belong here.” That’s real diversity and inclusion.

About the Author

Michelle Silverthorn is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Inclusion Nation, a diversity consulting firm that partners with forward-thinking organizations to design authentic, inclusive workplaces built for success. A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

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