Present is white female

A photo shows how much more representation is needed

Inclusion at Work

Sandra S. Yamate

Sandra S. Yamate is the CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. The institute is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive legal profession through its research and educational programming.

October 2019

If a picture paints a thousand words, then the July cover of Chicago Lawyer certainly did that. Pictured above the headline “The Present Is Female” were seven highly accomplished female lawyers who are leaders — managing partners and partners-in-charge — for some of the largest law firms in Chicago.

That 10 of the 20 largest law firms in Illinois have women in charge is something which deserves highlighting. After all, there are many of us who can recall a time when just the notion of women as partners in large law firms, let alone partners in firm management, seemed just one more distant aspirational goal.

But as much as that magazine cover highlighted something to applaud — the achievements of the individual women pictured — it is inaccurate to present this as indicative of women as a group achieving this degree of career success.

This cover is a well-deserved celebration of the achievements of white female lawyers. While at least one of the women pictured is ethnically Hispanic, Chicago Lawyer’s cover was notable for its absence of women of color or women with visible disabilities. It served as a stark reminder that in our profession, women of color and those with visible disabilities are so frequently ignored, overlooked and excluded, their absence in a photo intended to tout the achievements of women went unnoticed.

I attribute no malicious intent to Chicago Lawyer for using this cover photo. It’s not surprising that it didn’t trigger any concerns among the magazine’s editors. Viewing anything that falls under the heading of “women” as actually being “white women” is commonplace both within the legal profession and beyond.

Given the particular focus of the cover story — women’s leadership in large law firms in Chicago — coupled with the demographics of the profession, the lack of racial or physical ability diversity (there was nothing to indicate whether LGBTQ+ diversity or nonvisible disability diversity was represented in Chicago Lawyer cover photo) comes as no surprise. Women who are racial/ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of law firm partnerships.

In 2017 (the year for which the most recent data is available), only 0.7% of all law firm partners were African American women, 0.7% were Hispanic women and 1.2% were Asian American women. (There was no data for Native American women).

Indeed, the numbers of large law firm partners who are women of color are so small that earlier this year, when Hailyn Chen became the co-managing partner at Munger Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, it was heralded by the legal media; there are now a whopping two Asian American women who hold top leadership positions in a major firm, the other being Faiza Saeed at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City.

Indeed, the numbers of women of color leading (relatively) larger law firms is so small that we should note that one is here in Chicago — Patricia Brown Holmes of 73-lawyer firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila — and the other is Graciela Gomez Cowger, the CEO of 171-lawyer firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland, Ore.

And that’s the sum total: Four.

In the entire country.

The numbers for openly lesbian, bisexual or transgender women lawyers in large law firm management in the U.S. aren’t much better and I’m not aware of any women with known disabilities who lead any large law firms. (If anyone knows of more diverse women leading large law firms, please share so they can be celebrated, too).

But back to the Chicago Lawyer cover: It would have been nice had it included more diversity. Given the focus, however, it’s hard to find fault with the absence of women of color or women with visible disabilities when they are so underrepresented among large law firm partnerships, much less large law firm management and leadership.

Still, a great opportunity was missed to examine why that’s the case. Or, imagine had they used a photo of a group of women comprised entirely of women of color or women with visible disabilities. That might have been a powerful, counter-stereotypical way to explore the achievements of all types of women lawyers as a group.

Hindsight is 20/20. And while it was likely unintentional, nevertheless, one consequence of that cover photo was to marginalize and discount diverse women. Again.

I mean no disrespect to or disparagement of the achievements of the individual women who appeared on the Chicago Lawyer cover. They, and their firms, have every right to feel proud of the glass ceilings they have shattered.

But, while the present may be white female, it isn’t truly female until all women are included.