Smashing the Inner Glass Ceiling: A Unique Approach to Empowering Diverse Attorneys to Succeed

By Ann Jenrette-Thomas

Diverse lawyers in large and mid-size law firms face unique challenges due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability status separate and apart from the normal feats of becoming a successful lawyer.  As a result of these challenges, many diverse lawyers have consciously or subconsciously developed an “inner glass ceiling” — a set of unique limiting beliefs (discussed in greater detail below) that impacts their ability to achieve their full potential.

Why Are Diverse Attorneys Continuing to Face Challenges?

Law firms have taken great strides to increase the representation of traditionally marginalized groups: most top law firms include diversity metrics as part of their strategic objectives, have hired diversity directors or similar positions to address the retention needs of diverse lawyers, and engaged in concerted efforts to recruit diverse candidates.  Yet, despite these valiant (and necessary) efforts, the results remain less than desirable.  Studies show that diverse lawyers are less likely to be promoted to equity partner (women at 16.5 percent; people of color at 5.4 percent; openly LGBT at 1.65 percent; and no reported statistics on partners who are disabled).  Attrition rates are higher among diverse attorneys than straight, white, able-bodied men. The top reasons why diverse attorneys leave law firms include: work hours, lack of meaningful work, lack of mentors, firm climate and culture are unsupportive, unfair/inadequate evaluations and feedback, lack of flexibility in work schedule, and lack of advancement opportunities.  Fifty-two percent of these associates feel that their firms do not help them with business development. The reasons for leaving were more pronounced among associates of color and LGBT associates compared to white female associates: lack of mentors (23 percent vs. 7 percent), firm climate/culture (21 percent vs. 11 percent), and unfair evaluations (20 percent vs. 7 percent).

In spite of the diligent efforts of law firms to be more inclusive, why are they not achieving greater success?  I believe it is because a few critical aspects are overlooked.  First and foremost, most institutions (not just law firms) fail to recognize the systemic nature of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism (collectively, “isms”).  Traditionally, the term oppression referred to tyranny by a ruling group.  With the advent of identity politics and the social movements that began in the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of oppression was redefined to include “the disadvantage and injustice people experience because of the often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms. . . . [F]or every group that is oppressed, there is a group that is privileged in relation to that group.”

The systemic nature makes change difficult because in effect, the biases are part of the cultural norm.  Because it is part of the cultural norm, everyone (regardless of their demographics or identity) has internalized these messages.  For example, women are still considered the primary caretakers of children, and thus may experience judgment or guilt if they prioritize work.  Similarly, gay and lesbian lawyers are still expected to look and behave in a manner that is consistent with heterosexual and gender norms, leading them to “tone down” or cover their appearance and/or mannerisms to be seen as professional and appropriate.

The Inner Glass Ceiling

The inner glass ceiling consists of internalized limiting beliefs that are based on belonging to a historically non-dominant gender, race, sexual orientation, abilities, religion, class or age group.  While all limiting beliefs are personal to the individual, these beliefs are compounded and reinforced by the systemic and pervasive nature of oppression and privilege.

Unlike other limiting beliefs, these beliefs can be difficult to eradicate because of the consistent reinforcement and reflection back from society.  Normal strategies for challenging limiting beliefs are not in and of themselves sufficient to smash the inner glass ceiling.  Instead, these beliefs can only be eradicated with a two-pronged approach: a primary strategy that targets the inner glass ceiling, and secondary strategy that addresses the larger societal component.

The original thought that may be the basis of the belief can stem from a variety of factors — messages from one’s family of origin, media, societal dictates and norms, schooling, peers, etc.  Accordingly, perpetual exposure to stereotypes based on a person’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or age could also become the basis of a belief.  Stereotypes are pervasive.  They set up a definition of how a person should act, behave, look, and be perceived — all solely based on a person’s demographics/identity.

Stereotypes create a predisposition.  Without the presence of a stereotype, a person will have to act in a particular manner consistently before they will be labeled.  However, when a stereotype exists, one act (or sometimes no act) can subject an individual to a label.  For example, a potential litigation client who wants a really aggressive lawyer may choose not to hire an Asian woman based on the presumption that she will be too deferential and passive (a common stereotype).

Impact of the Inner Glass Ceiling On Diverse Lawyers

Inevitably, the pervasive nature of stereotypes and the systemic nature of “isms” have a devastating impact: members of the marginalized groups start to believe the messages and integrate them subconsciously.  The subconscious mind absorbs information from life experiences and uses it to process new events, serving as a filter to sift through the otherwise overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to each second.  Emotionally charged events (e.g., feeling like an outsider because of who you are) create stronger correlations within the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind does not have the ability to argue or dispute what it is told. If the subconscious mind is fed misinformation (such as stereotypes), it will nevertheless accept it as true.

When diverse lawyers internalize negative messages, it can cause them to feel (often unconsciously) that they are inherently not as worthy, capable, intelligent, beautiful, good, etc. as people in the majority. Belief in these negative messages is the inner glass ceiling.  As a result, they may alter their abilities, reactions, and even aspirations based on these limiting beliefs.  For example, a black associate may avoid speaking up at diversity initiatives because he does not want to be perceived as “having an attitude” or a chip on his shoulder, and further goes out of his way to let people know that he is of Caribbean descent so as not to be associated with the negative stereotypes of African American men.

Actions are always governed by one’s thoughts, beliefs, and perception.  If diverse attorneys have an inner glass ceiling, it will govern the actions that they take.  They may be reluctant to step up into a leadership position, fail to ask for better assignments, or damage their personal relationships in an effort to not upset the apple cart at work.

Smashing the Inner Glass Ceiling

Smashing the inner glass ceiling is not easy.  Due to the pervasive and delicate nature of the inner glass ceiling, smashing it requires a two-pronged approach.  The first prong is internal, requiring the diverse attorney to engage in the self-reflective (and often challenging) work of identifying and replacing their deeply rooted limiting beliefs.  The second prong is external, identifying strategies to help ensure that they create an external environment that will reinforce the new beliefs and dismantle the old beliefs.

The First Prong: Identify and Remove Your Inner Glass Ceiling

A diverse attorney can eliminate their inner glass ceiling by changing their thoughts and beliefs. Here is the seven-step process used in Esquire Coaching’s Diverse Rainmaker program to address the first prong:

Step 1: Identify Your Inner Glass Ceiling.   Identify with specificity the limiting beliefs you hold that are attributable to the internalizing of negative stereotypes associated with your race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or ability status. This may be challenging and not obvious at the beginning.  To understand what the challenges are, start to document where you have held yourself back and try to understand the reasons why you did so.  It may be useful to use a professional coach to help you identify the core limiting beliefs.

Step 2: Evaluate the Inner Glass Ceiling.  To truly effect change, you must engage all parts of the brain, not just the conscious mind.  The brain is wired to maintain the status quo.  One way to overcome this inertia is to motivate the more primitive/primal aspects of our brain, which is based on avoiding pain and/or increasing pleasure.  To engage these aspects of the brain, ask yourself, “What would happen if I never change this belief?”  Think about the short-term and long-term impact. Then measure the intensity of the impact by using a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most intense).  Similarly, ask yourself, “What would be possible if I no longer had this thought?”  Once again, measure the impact using the same 1-10 scale.  The higher the number, the more motivated you will be to smash your inner glass ceiling(s).

Step 3:  Conduct a Cost/Benefit Analysis. Generally, it’s easier for people to identify the negative impact (costs) associated with a limiting belief.  However, it’s equally important to understand how you may have benefitted from having the belief.  Did it allow you to avoid doing something you didn’t want to do or prevent you from experiencing (perceived) rejection or failure? This step also supports the motivation for change.

Step 4:  Challenge the Inner Glass Ceiling.  Think like opposing counsel. Discover every conceivable reason why this belief you hold is NOT true.  The more evidence you collect that contradicts the belief, the more you weaken its stronghold on your subconscious mind.

Step 5: Create New Empowering Alternative Beliefs.  The previous steps were essential to create the fertile soil necessary to develop a new belief.  Determine what you would like to believe about yourself instead of the inner glass ceiling.  If what you want to believe feels like too far of a stretch, then bring it down to something you can really believe now.  It’s essential that the new thought be believable for your subconscious mind to accept it.  You can raise it incrementally until you reach the desired belief.

Step 6: Internalize the New Belief.  A number of techniques for this are used by many Fortune 500 CEOs and star athletes. I’ll discuss two here. First, get a mental image of yourself embodying the new belief.  To do this, you have to think about who you would be (how you would act, look, talk, etc.) if the new belief were true.  Make this as vivid as possible.  Another common technique is repetition.  Repeat the new empowering belief as often as possible every day for at least 40 days.  In addition, use a 3:1 ratio any time you act or think in a manner that was consistent with the inner glass ceiling: repeat the new belief three times for each such act or thought.

Step 7:  Take Action.  Thinking and imagining success are only half the battle.  Taking action consistent with the new belief is essential.  This may mean taking a bit more risk, stepping up into a visible or leadership position, etc.  The key is that as you must take positive action consistent with your new belief to strengthen the association of the new belief in your subconscious mind.

The Second Prong: Creating an Empowering Environment (External)

As noted earlier, the “isms” are a systemic problem.  Working on yourself is essential, but it is not sufficient to truly create lasting change.  Because of the extensive and pervasive nature of oppression, it’s essential to include a plan of action that addresses external factors as well.  Here is the three-step process used in Esquire Coaching’s Diverse Rainmaker Program to address the second prong:

Step 1: Gather Support.  Find people you can truly trust (friends, mentor, partner/spouse, coach, etc.) to share this experience and help you to challenge the limiting beliefs when they occasionally arise.  These people should understand the nuance of the issues described and be willing to help you stay on track.

Step 2:  Nesting and Integrating.  In the nesting phase, it’s important to solely convene with others who belong to the same marginalized group(s).  The purpose is to have open and honest dialogue about the unique challenges you face as a member of this marginalized group.  It’s important to not be mired in adversity, but to keep the dialogue productive and with the objective of creating positive change.  In the integrating phase, it’s important to convene in groups that include allies.  Again, the focus should be constructive and forward-moving.  The objective is to help everyone understand the challenges felt by the marginalized group and stay focused on solutions.  Blame and shame should be avoided at all costs.  Using a skilled facilitator can help move these meetings along and diffuse the emotional charge without invalidating anyone’s experience.

Step 3:  Integrated Action.  Develop concrete action steps to help make the work environment more inclusive and welcoming based on the constructive dialogues that occur in Step 2.  Integrate action steps where people from the majority and the marginalized group have a vested responsibility in improving the work environment (e.g., through culture, emotional intelligence, sensitivity training, pipelines, sponsorships, etc.).

Note, all the foregoing steps are ongoing. Ongoing education, training, and coaching are needed in order to truly foster a truly inclusive environment for all.

As a society, we’ve come a long way and should be commended for all of the hard work that has been done to become a more inclusive profession. Unraveling the intricate web created by systemic oppression is not easy. Yet, more needs to be done. Smashing the inner glass ceiling is a method that incorporates both personal responsibility and group responsibility for affecting change.  It’s not enough to just have people that are different.  The true value of diversity comes when all people feel empowered to lead with authenticity.


About the Author:

Ann Jennrette-Thomas is an attorney and the founder of Esquire Coaching, a coaching and consulting exclusively focused on the legal market. She served as a keynote presenter at the 2014 ABA Legal Career Expo. She can be reached at 800.871.9012.

Send this to a friend