Challenging Gender and Racial Stereotypes in the Legal Profession


Gendered racism and sexism in law firms was the topic of a recent lecture held on October 24 at Fordham Law School in conjunction with the Center on Race, Law, and Justice, and the Black Law Students Association of Fordham. Dr. Tsedale M. Melaku, a sociologist and the author of You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, presented her work during a two-hour panel, which also featured Professor Cheryl I. Harris, a professor at UCLA School of Law. A leading scholar in the field of critical race studies and a lawyer, Harris is widely known for her article “Whiteness as Property,” which appeared in the Harvard Law Review. The event was moderated by Fordham Law Professor Tanya K. Hernandez.

Melaku came to this research after years of being employed in elite law firms and seeing firsthand a lack of gender and racial diversity. For her book, Melaku ulitizes interviews from 20 Black women lawyers about their experiences on a wide range of issues ranging from mentorships and sponsorships to professional development and social interactions. Through these interviews and other research, she found that women of color had vastly different experiences from their overwhelmingly white male and female colleagues. In addition to her research and writing, Melaku consults with law firms throughout the country on how they can create a more diverse workplace by broadening the reach of their hiring practices and cultivating a more inclusive company culture. 

The book also considers how gendered racism leads to larger issues involving appearance, the exclusion of women of color from social and networking opportunities, and the lack of sponsorships and advancement opportunities. You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer also looks at how firms can make changes to be more inclusive and be accountable for differences in how women of color are treated in comparison to their white counterparts. 

“I wanted to look at how women are viewed in firms…and how to center women of color and race to counter previous white feminist focused narratives,” said Melaku. 

“There is a minimization of race in white spaces that creates larger aspects of color blindness…in silencing black women it erases this central aspect,” she added. 

Both in the book and also at the event, Melaku discussed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “lean in” and how it is geared towards women who can get into the room. 

“I talk about Lean In. I talk about how Sheryl Sandberg had this idea, but it excluded Black Women, women of color. The experience that she is talking to is a very white experience and what she is speaking about is very white,” Melaku told the audience, “You’re not leaning into a table. You’re [white women]in the room so you can lean in to the table. When you are looking at women of color, black women in particular, you’re not even in the room, you’re at the door and they are asking you for coffee, to do print outs so there is a difference between that,” Melaku said. 

Lean In for me was offensive because of the erasure of the existence of that particular experience on women of color.  It was an erasure of that experience. You can’t talk about lean in as a woman’s issue and not include all of these women. I don’t like the language that’s used to put the onus on the people who are being systematically marginalized in all of these spaces. However, I’m not going to throw out Lean In, but it needs work,” she observed. 

Harris responded to Melaku’s presentation by sharing her own experience of gendered racism early in her career. She described an instance when she was standing in for another lawyer, but when she arrived at a courthouse–in an affluent suburb of Chicago–she said she was misidentified by the two court officers and then by the judge handling the case. While this incident happened nearly 30 years ago, Harris said her experience mirrored many of the stories in Melaku’s book. Harris went on to speak about the lived black experience, intersectionality, and the construction and implementation of racism and gendered racism in law firms as well as the broader sociocultural context. 

Following the talk, there were a series of questions from the audience, including how Melaku’s experience as a woman of color and immigrant (she was born in Ethiopia, then emigrated to the US) informed her project. Additional discussion explored how sexism differs from racialized sexism. 

Harris offered advice for students of color entering the legal profession, “Walk into situations with your eyes open and understand the importance of building networks outside of spaces and think in terms of being strategic before you walk in the door. You have the most leverage then,” Harris said. 

Harris also noted the importance of having work experience that can be transferable, being able to learn on the job, and having skill sets that can exist outside of the workspace. For example, she said it was crucial for associates to insist on taking part in pro-bono programs as a way to develop this experience.

As law firms adjust and continue to become more diverse, Harris and Melaku have offered critical insights into the pervasive issue of sexism and racial bias in the legal profession.


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