“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”―Fred Rogers
My latest quarantine binge has been Mrs. America, which is about the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early ‘70s. It has an amazing cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks. Highly recommend… unless you’re looking to share my brother-in-law’s Hulu account; that one’s maxed out.
What has struck me most about the show is not the sweeping efforts at major policy change, but the microaggressions. The gratuitous touches, the offhand comments, the unspoken assumptions that remind me of what my female peers and I endured early in our careers, even decades after the show takes place. From snide remarks and unwelcome advances to missed opportunities and overt discrimination.
Senior partners would look at young women coming up in the law and see only a new wife or new mother not up to the challenge of a big firm. And back then, they would say the quiet part out loud: “We can’t promote women, they’re not committed to the work.” “We can’t bring women on business trips, it would make our wives uncomfortable.” “We don’t want women on the litigation team, they’re likely to get pregnant and leave.” Sure, progress has been made since then, but that progress has hit a plateau over the past few years. And now, COVID-19 and the recession threaten to undo years of growth.
Something the legal industry does really well is track numbers, share stats, and sign on to countless worthwhile acknowledgments of its industry-wide diversity problem. And yes, the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem. But I think we can safely check that box, no? Let’s start focusing on what comes next: Women in law need allies.
We can break down the roles people take on in support of women into three categories: mentors, sponsors, and allies. While they are all worthwhile, they are not all created equal. The distinction is key to helping people reflect on what they’re really accomplishing, the impact their actions are having, and what more they can do to advance women in law.
Mentors are fairly common. They serve as experienced and trusted advisers, offering career advice, and sharing wisdom. I myself have had the fortune of more than one incredible mentor in my own career, and continue to serve as one to others. Many young lawyers are advised to find a mentor early in their careers, and some even work in organizations with formal mentoring programs. But even with the best of intentions, many forced mentoring relationships suffer from a lack of chemistry, structure, and motivation. Mentoring can become a chore on everyone’s insatiable to-do lists, and more often than not they devolve into an occasional cup of coffee.
That said, many mentoring relationships do develop organically and successfully. And the right matches can be very beneficial for both mentors and mentees. They can provide guidance and support, even if from a professional distance. Early in one’s career, as well as at career pivot points, mentors can be key to keeping professionals moving in the direction they want to be headed. And many mentors enjoy the opportunity to share what they have learned in their careers. Still, there’s a limit to the impact a mentor can have. You can do more.
A sponsor is someone who will advocate for you. Put their name and reputation on the line for you. Vouch for you. Share their network with you. Less common than a mentor, and a more difficult relationship to cultivate, a sponsor is much more influential on an individual’s career. For women, especially women of color, having a sponsor is a very effective way to combat systemic bias.
Unfortunately, finding a sponsor can be especially challenging for women. Sponsors traditionally share similar backgrounds and profiles with the professionals they are helping, which does little to help diversify the industry. And while having a sponsor can be key to successfully transitioning lucrative books of business and key client relationships, their impact is limited in reach. You can do more.
Major advances for women in law will take more than even the most dedicated mentors and sponsors. This is where allies come in. An ally is someone who is willing to utilize their credibility to create a more inclusive culture where everyone can succeed. Someone who boldly advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion regardless of who is in the room. Someone who uses their privilege to address systemic issues that impact individuals and communities differently.
“We are all weathering the same storm,” has been a common refrain of late, “but we are not in the same boat.” If ever there was a time when we needed to be more cognizant of the disparate impact issues can have on different people, that time is now. We all need to be the helpers now. We all need to be allies.
How do we do that? How do we help? The key is to take action. Be active. Doing no harm is great. Actively preventing further harm is better. Start with this list. Don’t feel like you have to do them all. Pick just one you can handle. Work to make it part of your routine until it becomes second nature. Then add another. And another.
- Check in with colleagues
- Listen more, talk less
- Amplify women’s voices
- Speak up in the “locker room”
- Recognize and call out microaggressions
- Believe women
- Be where the women are
- Respect the space
- Remember, it’s not always about you
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable
- Interrupt unconscious bias
- Acknowledge systems of privilege and power
- Normalize differences
- Embrace culture change
- Advocate for fair policies
- Use inclusive language
- Insist on transparency
When we get to the other side of COVID-19, we won’t be going back to how things were. Life will be forever changed. The workplace will look very different. And allies will have an unprecedented opportunity to help shape that new normal.
About the Author