Anecdotes drive home the need for anti-bias training

Oct. 26
President’s Message By Bryan Neft

Do you remember going for that first job interview, worrying about if your clothes were spot on, and your hair perfectly in place? When you submitted a resume to a firm, did you ever worry that your name looked too “ethnic” or that an organization you belonged to would skew the reviewer’s opinion about you before they even got to know you and your talents?

Besides the health benefits of working out, why do so many of us break our backs at the gym to attempt to look good? I still strive for “six-pack abs” at the gym, perhaps as a fading sign of male virility, but more and more I seem to resonate with the T-shirt I see there pronouncing “Six-Pack Abs – Coming Soon.” Unfortunately, our culture and our instincts ingrain us to believe that if we don’t conform or match the ideals society promotes as acceptable or coveted, we are at a disadvantage. But in our hearts we know that people should enjoy our company, be willing to listen to us and accept us for who we are, lack of six-packs and all.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the practice of law in Allegheny County in 2018. Fair question. The problem is, I still see too many examples of people in the profession being prejudged based on characteristics such as physical appearance, gender, race, age and sexual orientation.

About 12 years ago, I joined the Women in the Law Division Gender Bias Subcommittee. Despite education and our best efforts, we keep hearing a broken record of complaints against members of the bench and bar who engage in bias against women. Unfortunately, most of the complaints never escalate beyond our meetings because these lawyers have real-world concerns such as maintaining their jobs to feed their families. Last month, I wrote of the need for greater diversity in the profession. What many of us fail to recognize is the fact that bias can and does affect our lack of diversity.

Prior to the 2018 Bench-Bar Conference, the Women in the Law Division sent a questionnaire to members of the division and members of the ACBA affinity groups (Homer S. Brown Division, LGBT Rights Committee, Hispanic Attorneys Committee, etc.) to understand some of the issues currently facing women and minorities in the profession. Below are some of the issues they identified:

  • An associate who worked well with the partners at her firm left for maternity leave. Upon her return, she stopped getting assignments from the partners and her performance reviews suddenly indicated dissatisfaction with her work.
  • Pay disparities between male and female associates with similar credentials.
  • Instances of sexual harassment that firms refused to address.
  • Exclusion of female associates from client golf outings.
  • Slotting attorneys who are persons of color or LGBT to committees related to diversity/race/sexual orientation rather than to more “powerful” committees like compensation.
  • Telling black attorneys that they got their job because they were black.
  • Judges referring to women attorneys condescendingly as “young lady,” while not referring to opposing male counsel as “young man.”
  • Judges excluding female attorneys from important pre-trial and trial discussions.

These stories are all from within the last five years reported by our colleagues. If you recognize the protagonist in any of these scenarios, or if you recognize yourself as the protagonist, please keep reading. And even if you don’t recognize any of them, please keep reading – it’s just that important of an issue that no one should ignore.

It troubles me that over the last 30 years the stories haven’t changed. Only the actors have changed. Women and minorities aren’t getting the same opportunities as white men. In many instances, they probably aren’t receiving the same pay for the same quality/quantity work. Women leave the profession at alarming rates because they continue to be vexed by obstacles not of their own making. If you don’t believe me, believe the recent American Bar Association study “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Gender and Legal Bias in the Profession,” which was featured last month in the New York Times article, “Lawyers Say They Face Persistent Racial and Gender Bias at Work.”

A mentor of mine once explained to me that life, and our careers, are full of unfairness. We can’t stop all of the unfairness that exists in the profession. Certain women might get better opportunities than other women; just as certain men might get better opportunities than other men. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for a fairer or more just way of doling out opportunities, compensation and promotions.

The solution, if there is one, is more complex than I have room for in this article; but let me suggest one thing that may help. This year, at the behest of our Women in the Law Division, the ACBA is embarking on a pilot program to include implicit-bias training in continuing legal education programs that are approved for continuing judicial education credits. We all have implicit biases. The point of the education is to help us to recognize those biases and call them out so that they don’t interfere with objective decision-making. Please take one of these classes.

If you think that implicit-bias education is a bunch of malarkey, consider that the Corporate Equity and Inclusion Roundtable, in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, has become a model for implicit-bias training and has been offering it to members of the public to sold-out crowds. It is my hope to offer this program to the members of the ACBA.

If we begin to understand our own limitations, and the fact that we have biases – as unintentional as they are – then maybe we can better understand how subconsciously we might be holding others back. If you don’t believe that you have anything to learn from implicit-bias training, then at the very least tell your prospective clients and attorneys that you have no issues with gender or racial diversity. That, in and of itself, will speak volumes – because most people will understand you to be saying just the opposite.