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Despite Law Firm Efforts, Women of Color Still Face Workplace Challenges

“Imperfect execution” of diversity programs may lead to steep losses and costs to firms

Are law firms putting their bottom lines at risk? According to Catalyst’s Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms, women of color face complex barriers compared to other groups that may significantly decrease job satisfaction and increase the intent to leave their current firm—factors that affect a firm’s bottom line. The study is the fourth and final in Catalyst’s Women of Color in Professional Services Series examining how the “intersectionality,” or combined identities of gender and race/ethnicity, puts women of color at a unique disadvantage in the workplace. Despite widespread existence of systems created to develop and advance women of color, research has shown that more than 75 percent of these women will leave their employer within five years, costing an amount potentially greater than each person’s total salary and benefits.

“We’ve seen many law firms make significant inroads towards advancing more women into partnership and leadership,” said Ilene H. Lang, President & Chief Executive Officer, Catalyst. “Yet retention and advancement of women of color attorneys is still a challenge. Law firms are well positioned—and it will be to their advantage—to take the next critical step to address the unique differences among women, which can lead to more successful outcomes.”

The report, which explores the workplace experiences of women of color compared with those of men of color and white women and men, identifies challenges unique to women of color, which include:

  • A greater sense of “outsider status” and limited growth opportunities.
  • Racial and gender stereotyping and more feelings of sexism in the workplace compared to white women.
  • Lack of access to high-profile client assignments and important client engagements.
  • Missed opportunities for candid feedback.

These challenges emphasize the importance of recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling workplace inclusion cannot meet the needs of an increasingly diverse talent pool. Furthermore, the report found stark differences between groups of women of color in their perceptions surrounding workplace culture and diversity. For example, black women compared to Asian women and Latinas were more likely to believe diversity programs fail to address workplace biases, feel that partners, as well as other supervising attorneys, receive insufficient training on how to work effectively with diverse cultures, and cite a lack of access to challenging work assignments on client engagements.

The report recommends the following to attract and retain women of color employees:

  • Include senior leaders as active players in building and establishing inclusive workplaces.
  • Raise awareness of intersectionality and the varying needs of differing minority groups.
  • Create opportunities for dialogue between firm leadership and women of color attorneys.
  • Educate all attorneys, especially partners and other supervising attorneys, on how to recognize bias and stereotyping of women of color in the workplace.
  • Monitor and track the career development of women of color and hold leaders accountable for their advancement.

Sidley Austin LLP is the lead sponsor of Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms, with partnering sponsors Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. For more information on our Women of Color in Professional Services Series, please visit our website at For media inquiries, please contact Serena Fong, [email protected], 646-388-7757; or Jeff Barth, [email protected], 646-388-7725.

For the quantitative portion of this study, a survey tool was distributed to a sample of lawyers working at the top 25 (by revenue) law firms in the United States. Participating firms fielded the web survey between December 2007 and March 2008, and the surveys were open for two to four weeks at each firm. The survey was sent to a total of 2,939 individuals; a total of 1,242 responded, for an overall response rate of 42.3 percent. The qualitative portion of this study consisted of interviews with senior partners in a subsample of participating U.S. law firms. We also conducted focus groups with women of color (Asian women, black women, and Latinas) in a subsample of firms.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and more than 400 preeminent corporations as members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.