Women of color and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) lawyers remain underrepresented in Utah’s legal profession. As a result, these professionals were underrepresented in our survey findings, which makes statistical conclusions about their experiences difficult. To correct that limitation, we provide insights into some of the unique challenges these professionals face in Utah based on in-depth interviews. In this way we hope to make visible the experiences of bias due to race, ethnicity, gender identity/expression and sexual identity that may be under-reported in our survey data.
Women Lawyers of Color
Women of color occupy a unique position in high-status professions. They are underrepresented as women and as people of color. In addition to gender bias, they also experience racial or ethnic bias. Yet their experiences are not shaped by race and gender independently. Rather, they experience bias at the intersection of these identities.
Nationally, women of color are underrepresented in legal careers. While women of color represent nearly a fifth (19%) of all law school graduates, they hold fewer than 9% of law firm positions and fewer than 4% of law firm partnerships. In Utah, communities of color comprise over 20% of Utah’s population, yet women of color comprise only 10% or fewer of all legal positions – including in-house counsel, associates and staff attorneys. In senior position, the absence of women of color is even more striking; women of color represent only 2% of Utah’s judiciary and only 1% of law firm partners.
This degree of underrepresentation creates unsustainable challenges for these members of the profession. Interviews reveal that women of color lawyers routinely confront three major challenges: (1) a burden of doubt with regard to their status and competence; (2) challenges associated with extreme tokenism; and (3) hostility and exclusion from colleagues and professional networks.
Several respondents reported that colleagues, opposing counsel and even clients routinely challenge their expertise and professionalism. One respondent relayed several instances of being challenged or undermined by opposing counsel and clients by the use of racist and dismissive language. She shared:
One [opposing counsel] referred to me as “that Mexican girl”—that’s actually one of the more tame ones….One of the family members [of a client] used the term “wetback” in reference to me, which made me laugh because my family has been here for generations….yet that has happened.
Another respondent described several instances when her competence was questioned and/or when her colleagues micromanaged her work product to ensure its quality – even as she advanced into senior positions. She said, “There are cases where clearly it’s because I’m a woman of color that you don’t think I can hit the standard, that you don’t recognize that I’m helping you hit it.” She detailed one instance where, despite her role as the senior legal counsel at her firm, the other legal team requested that her CEO attend meetings. According to one of the lawyers on the team, “they don’t think you’re authorized to talk about this and in fact one of the [other] CEOs wondered whether or not you were experienced enough to deal with this.”
Women of color also reveal experiences of being the only one in the room and the ways that solo or token status has affected their careers. Many respondents, regardless of rank or position, are routinely mistaken for staff, paralegals or court reporters. Extreme tokenism can increase stereotypes and place intense performance pressures on individuals. One respondent revealed her own experience with bias:
There’s no peers of yours. You go into an all-White room. Um, yes, there are some women there but it’s usually the majority men….it’s just so shocking how homogenous (Utah is)…like I can go a whole day without seeing anyone of color a whole day.
Some respondents experienced outright hostility from colleagues and exclusion from professional opportunities and networks. One stated, “On more than one occasion I obviously encountered open racism. I’ll just be honest.” She recalls a deposition in which a White man lawyer made a racist joke about the Hispanic-sounding names of the parties. When the lawyer expressed displeasure about the joke, her colleague at first encouraged her to “lighten up” before saying “Oh yeah, I forgot you’re one of them, aren’t you?”
Importantly, many women of color with children also viewed leaving their careers as non-negotiable. Cultural discourse in Utah suggests that mothers have a “choice” to continue to work or to “opt out” of careers after their children are born. However, the ability to opt out reflects a significant degree of class privilege that many women of color in particular lack. Women of color are more likely than White women to be financially responsible not only for themselves and their immediate families, but for members of their extended family as well. Women of color are also more likely to rely on extended family for support while obtaining their degrees. This, in turn, creates a greater sense of reciprocity once they establish their careers. As a result, the notion of “opting out” of a career is viewed as a privilege that is simply unavailable to them. One respondent explained that many women of color, like herself, have to overcome tremendous odds to succeed and carry the responsibility of supporting many people beyond themselves and their immediate family:
I find that women of color have…so like when you see your White women counterparts, it’s usually their just immediate family. It’s like them and their husband and their children. Whereas I find in families of color, you have more extended family that I find that, that women are more, not responsible for, but are more generous towards. Like they have a parent, or they have a sibling, or they have cousins, or they have a niece or nephew or they have something that they’re also contributing to other households, not just their own.
Among survey respondents, 4% of man-identified and 8% of women-identified respondents are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Only two respondents identified as transgender or non-binary. This under-representation mirrors national trends. Though the representation of openly LGBTQ+ lawyers is increasing, these individuals remain underrepresented in law relative to their overall numbers in the population. A great deal of research at the national level reveals that LGBTQ+ workers are significantly more likely than other employees to experience harassment, discrimination, job loss and violence in the workplace. These forms of bias and exclusion are even greater in conservative cultural contexts where moral judgments about gender roles, sexual identity and gender expression predominate.
Interviews revealed that LGBTQ+ lawyers routinely confront three major challenges: (1) bias and discrimination; (2) challenges securing clients from the dominant culture; and (3) harassment from peers, including opposing counsel.
One respondent detailed how she was denied access to prestigious law firm jobs in Utah even though she graduated at the top of her class and received multiple offers from law firms out of state. She was invited for more than a dozen interviews to Utah firms. At each interview, she was told she clearly had the skill and credentials for the position, but the firm was concerned about her “fit.” She told us:
So, I don’t know what the disconnect was, but I think whatever is at play is at play at law firms here. And so maybe women have to be that much better or maybe it just seemed risky to have this lesbian mom… law firms are just hostile. They’re hostile. It’s hard to be in conflict all the time.
Yet another respondent described how several of her colleagues remain closeted at work for fear that revealing their sexual or gender identity would negatively impact their careers. She believes that growing up LDS can help LGBTQ+ individuals navigate their careers as outsiders, “It’s such a part of the culture and you can talk the talk even if it’s not something your active in or part of…It’s such an overwhelming part of living in Utah.” However, she noted that LGBTQ+ individuals who are not familiar with the dominant culture may face even greater barriers to inclusion.
Another respondent believed that building a client-base in her area of law in Utah is nearly impossible. She has devoted herself to building up a national client base in order to build a successful career in Utah—a significant burden not faced by her non-LGBTQ+ peers. She told us about her challenges:
The [clients] in Utah, I hate to say it, but they’re almost all male and devout members of the Mormon faith. They’re mission presidents, stake presidents, whatever. They’re not going to look at me with a lot of fondness. It will affect me once I become a partner. I’ll have to have a more national footprint.
One respondent recounted several instances of being harassed or bullied by opposing counsel due to her gender and sexual identity. In one instance, she remained in the courtroom long after the proceeding had ended out of fear of being harassed in the hallway. In another instance, an opposing counsel included a paragraph in a brief to the court that referred to her as a “militant feminist lesbian.” This type of abuse deeply affected her well-being and career commitment. She confessed:
I think it affects me because, the first thing I always think is I’m going to quit. I can’t do this anymore, I don’t want to do this anymore… And then it upsets me for several days, it takes me a couple days to get over it. I think it has a huge emotional toll to it. Huge, massive. I absolutely love being a lawyer and I love practicing [in this area of] law. To my core. When it makes me want to quit, it’s a big deal.
Many of the respondents mentioned they hold memberships in legal organizations such as Women Lawyers of Utah (WLU), the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion (UCLI) and the Utah Minority Bar Association (UMBA) and/or viewed these organizations as potential champions for change. One respondent noted that two of her firm’s partners were active in UCLI and she believed this engagement by her firm’s leadership had motivated an effort to increase diversity among recent hires. Another stated that she routinely relies on the WLU and the Minority Bar Association to increase the women and minorities in her pool of applicants when she is hiring for a new position. Several lawyers mentioned the significance of the first WLU report in increasing awareness of gender bias in the profession. One said, “the first [WLU] report was helpful in [raising awareness]. And I think having a more nuanced report will be helpful.”
However, some respondents felt these organizations needed to be more inclusive. One interviewee observed that the leadership and membership of these organizations is largely comprised of White men and women. According to one Latinx interviewee, “WLU [is] very much so, very, very much so, targeted to White women.” Another respondent stated that for the past three years the UMBA has awarded their Distinguished Lawyer of the Year award to White men. She said, “The Utah Minority Bar Association cannot consistently and continuously highlight White men or White women as their champions. We have to be our champions.”
While this section represents voices from the margin, their experiences, contributions, and stories are not marginal. Time and again, our interviewees explained that these incidents had become so much of their norm that they developed survival skills and mechanisms to help mediate the frequent slights, insults, and underestimation they experience at work. When asked how she deals with racial bias, one respondent explained: “You have to be like a duck. You have to let things roll down your back and then just shake them off. Because if you allow yourself to spend too much time in a negative space, then you yourself become negative.” Among the many experiences recounted to us in these interviews, one thing is abundantly clear—despite these frequent incidents of bias and microaggressions, their love of the law and commitment to excellence is what ultimately builds their resilience and resolve.