Chefs across America compete for our taste buds by using innovation in the kitchen. Among the nation's trendiest restaurants, the hottest rage going right now is fusion cuisine, or using the best elements of various ethnic cuisines to create new dishes. By departing from classic recipes and introducing new ingredients to traditional dishes, culinary experts simultaneously break down cultural barriers and discover delicious new combinations.
For example, breakfast might be a bagel with jalapeño cream cheese and a café latte; lunch, a focaccia bread gyro sandwich; dinner, a stir fry over basmati rice; and dessert a big scoop of Ben and Jerry's vanilla ice cream.
The legal profession, indeed all employers, should draw inspiration from the restaurant industry. A fusion workplace is all about tapping into the variations among us to maximize results and profitability. Just as a diversity of foods expands our palates and creates new experiences, a diversity of people brings to the table a vital array of ideas and viewpoints.
Women who practice law have only those two traits in common. In every other respect, each individual represents a unique bundle of characteristics. Both female and male colleagues intersect and interact across gender, race, and ethnicity—but also across specialty areas, social and economic strata, religious and political affiliations, marital status, generations, and physical and mental abilities. A fusion workplace successfully merges these differences to spark creative new alliances vital to moving the organization forward and setting it apart from the competition.
A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) study (see "Diversity in Law Firms" at www.eeoc.gov) on the representation of women and people of color in the legal profession provides a yardstick by which to measure recent and future progress. As a sample, we used the records of law firms nationwide that employ 100 or more people. However, we believe that many of the same characteristics and issues are relevant to corporate legal departments.
The EEOC found that women, as a group, have made the most progress since the mid-1970s in entering positions as legal professionals. Today, they occupy 40 percent of such jobs. Over the same period, African Americans and Hispanics (both female and male) doubled their employment. Asian representation rose five times over. Even so, the statistics regarding people of color still remain in single digit percentages.
Pipeline numbers are similar in terms of both gains and deficiencies. The number of women earning law degrees has swelled to 48 percent, and an even more recent count by the National Association of Law Placement notes the number is up a notch to 49 percent. The figures for African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, respectively, all have increased as well, but remain far shy of the levels at which each of these groups is represented in the United States population.
The results of EEOC's study suggest that the most pressing equal employment opportunity issue for the legal industry may no longer be that of hiring, but conditions of employment, and, for firms, particularly the ability for promotion to the partnership level. Questions also abound regarding the fairness and openness of hiring practices and problems relating to attrition and earnings.
Additionally, the Commission's study found that nationally known law firms, and those with multiple offices, generally have higher proportions of women and people of color working as legal professionals than do other types of law firms. Furthermore, we learned that individuals of color are more likely to be associated with firms in the top 10 geographic legal markets and in firms ranked in the top 100 on the basis of prestige and/or earnings.
The journey toward achieving a workforce that is fully inclusive of everyone's talents is a shared responsibility of private industry, government, advocacy groups, academia, and individuals. While we should certainly be proud of the progress women and people of color have made in joining the ranks of the legal profession, we must also be mindful of how far we have to go in eliminating barriers to their participation.
Diversity goals should not be about counting heads, but about making heads count. Toward that end, the EEOC recommends that employers of legal professionals begin with the following steps to opening wider doors for women and people of color:
- Place a greater focus on diversity in the recruitment and hiring processes;
- Increase mentoring and training opportunities;
- Address the pervasive problem of attrition, especially regarding women of color;
- Provide more management authority at the partner level, where applicable; and
- Offer family friendly policies and flexible work options.
Meanwhile, the EEOC continues to look for and implement creative ways to address the evolving issues of our times, even as our mission to prevent and eradicate discrimination remains the same. In July 2005, this agency will commemorate four decades of service to America. Not widely known to the general public is the fact that gender discrimination was included in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which created the Commission at the last minute in a political maneuvering to defeat the bill.
"While we should certainly be proud of the progress women and people of color have made in joining the ranks of the legal profession, we must also be mindful of how far we have to go in eliminating barriers to their participation."
—Cari M. Dominquez
Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia added a single word—sex—expecting his colleagues to vote against a law that would do something as outrageous as outlawing discrimination based on gender. What occurred instead set the course of history.
During the floor debate for the Civil Rights Act, Congresswoman Katherine St. George of New York insisted that she could think of "nothing more logical" than Smith's amendment. She further elaborated that while women did not need any special privileges because they tend to outlast and outlive men, "We are entitled to this little crumb of equality." The word "sex" stayed and the bill was passed into law.
Ironically, a year later, when the EEOC opened its doors, that crumb of equality yielded an unexpected plate of sex discrimination charges, second in volume only to the number of race complaints received. Today, gender discrimination still takes second billing, accounting for 30 percent of all of the charges we process. Often, these complaints also include allegations of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and other prohibited factors.
In 2005, hardly anyone openly questions the civil rights of women or people of color to compete for, work in, or excel at any profession. At the pivotal crossroads in which we now find ourselves, our common challenge is to not only respect the individual differences among us, but to recognize the power we gain when we seek, as an organization, to capitalize on that diversity. A smorgasboard of opportunity awaits.
EEOC Announces New "Freedom to Compete" Award Program
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced a call for nominations to receive the first ever "Freedom to Compete" award, which will be presented to private and public employers, corporations, associations, organizations, and other entities that have demonstrated exemplary performance and best practices in promoting fair and open competition in the workplace. Nominations may be made by the public or an entity may nominate itself.
A complete description of the award and submission criteria are available on the EEOC's web site at www.eeoc.gov. Though nomination packages must be received no later than March 11, 2005, interested readers who miss this first round are encouraged to check back for information about the next call for nominations.
Cari Dominguez is chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Equal Pay Act; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination affecting individuals with disabilities in the federal government; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. To obtain further information about the Commission, please visit www.eeoc.gov.
From the March/April 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®