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Midyear Meeting

Panelists See Progress for Women of Color at Corporate Legal Departments, But Barriers Still Exist

Posted Feb 3, 2012 9:22 PM CDT
By James Podgers

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Many large corporations are making significant progress in bringing diversity to their legal departments and creating opportunities for women of color to advance, but a panel of women lawyers in corporate leadership positions told a packed audience today that women also need to take control of their careers if they want to advance up the corporate ladder.

"Be bold, and let people know what you want," said Denise F. Keane, executive vice president and general counsel of Altria Group Inc., in Richmond, Va. Systems implemented at companies to help people advance "need to work really well to find you. You've got to take the initiative."

Keane is a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, which sponsored the program titled "Visible Invisibility: Breaking Down Barriers to Women's Leadership" during the 2012 ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.

The program was held as part of the commission's Women of Color Research Initiative, which is scheduled to issue a report on the career experiences of women of color in Fortune 500 legal departments in August at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. The report will be the third one issued by the research initiative since it was launched in 2003. The first report, issued in 2006, found that women of color at law firms reported workplace harassment, exclusion from networking opportunities and lack of access to desirable work assignments at higher rates than other demographic segments. A second report (PDF) issued in 2008 described career insights from 28 women of color working as partners at law firms.

The report on the corporate environment for women lawyers of color is still being written, but it will report that most women of color who participated said they experienced little or no bias in hiring and recruitment, but that they continue to face barriers once they are actually in the workplace, said Lorelie S. Masters, a Women's Commission member and partner at Jenner & Block in Washington, D.C. The commission's study also found that nonwhite attorneys, both women and men, are less likely than whites to have a mentor at their place of work, and women of color are least likely to have a white male mentor in a senior position at the company. In addition, women of color said they feel that they earn less than men from day one at their companies.

But some think things are improving. One of the keys is that many corporations have made a commitment to bringing more transparency to their hiring and promotion structures. "If you've got transparency, you know how to tackle it," said Michele Coleman Mayes, executive vice president and general counsel for Allstate Insurance Co., where, she said, "Transparency is a core value." (Mayes received the Margaret Brent Women of Achievement Award sponsored by the Women's Commission in 2003.)

A key benefit of transparency is that it helps employees to understand what they need to do to move into other positions, said Isabella Fu, an associate general counsel at Microsoft Corp. "That way," she said, "you can see what the necessary skills are and how to build them."

But Mayes said it's important for an individual to continue to emphasize her own career growth. "People get into jobs and then stop networking. Big mistake," she said. "A lot of people say they want to take the risk until you ask them to."

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