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A Conversation on Intersecting Identities, Advocacy, and Allyship

April 09, 2021

Women of intersecting identities—including race, gender identity, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and disability—face unique challenges in the workplace. Morgan Lewis, the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) recently joined together for a candid discussion on these issues.

Our panelists—Grace Speights (partner, Morgan Lewis), Jasmine E. Harris (professor of law, UC Davis), Imani Rupert-Gordon (executive director, NCLR), and Sonia Zeledon (general counsel, HNBA; associate general counsel, compliance & data privacy, The Hershey Company)—shared their insights on advancing gender diversity and inclusion, the importance of relationships, how intersectionality informs advocacy, and advice for allies. Morgan Lewis partner Michelle Pector facilitated the audience Q&A and provided closing remarks.

Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Advancing DEI in the Legal Industry

In their opening remarks, Firm Chair Jami McKeon and MCCA President and CEO Jean Lee shared how Morgan Lewis and MCCA are addressing issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal industry.

Jami: I think each of us has an individual responsibility to help others move forward, and to do so even in the unusual circumstances that now exist. The current situation presents extraordinary challenges and new opportunities. We just have to find them.

Jean: It is so important to acknowledge where we are today, and what we must all do together to achieve more equity for women and women of color. Kimberly Crenshaw spoke about how intersectionality recognizes that people can be disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, etcetera, and that it's important to know and understand that these identities are not compartmentalized and separate. Part of this is coming together to think about these issues and provide solutions, like with this expert group of panelists.

Recognizing the Importance of Mentorship, Sponsorship & Relationships

Imani: I read an article that said everyone over 35 should have a young person as a mentor. Not a mentee—a mentor. That perspective really stood out to me. My younger mentors are valuable. We all remember that swagger we had when we were young. The optimism and energy. They’ll share that with you. As older people, we have access to people in higher positions and to rooms that aid us in our professional development and education. We need to bring the younger people into those rooms. For younger folks, there are spaces where they are savvier than us, and they can guide us through those if we are open to it. By helping each other have access to and navigate those spaces, we are forming a reciprocal relationship. Everyone has something to give.

Grace: We make building relationships and supporting women sound incredibly difficult. It can be as simple as reaching out and saying, “I want to get to know you.” Once you start talking to each other, you start to understand your differences. And you will find things that you have in common. Those things will help you build common ground, and you’ll keep building on that to form a strong relationship. People with privilege and seniority in law firms need to take on the responsibility to start building that common ground. We cannot expect that women of color—especially associates—are going to feel comfortable reaching out. We need to reach out and ask to chat, have lunch, get coffee, and talk about our experiences. So, let's just start a conversation and say, “I want to get to know you.” Let's make it easy.

Jasmine: Relationship-building is creating a web around yourself—and that web does not end with you at the top. There are going be people below, above, and next to you. You can make building that web more manageable by setting aside time in your calendar each week. Start with a recurring reminder for 30 minutes of dedicated networking time. Start by reaching out to someone in the firm, your alumni network, or a fellow associate. Connect with people that share an identity with you and those outside of your circle. You'll be surprised when at the end of a month, at the end of a year, your web is much larger than when you began. You’ll have valuable resources and meaningful relationships that you didn't have before.

Sonia: From my Latina, Hispanic, and immigrant perspective, it is not traditional to ask elders or people in senior positions for anything. You put your head down and work hard hoping someone will recognize your talent and help you advance in your career. I’ve learned that in American society, you must take matters into your own hands. I’ve also learned that something as simple as being nice to people goes a very long way. I have been mentored by people I didn't purposefully seek out just because I happened to be nice to them. We built a relationship, they knew I respected them, and because of that they became mentors and sponsors. And don’t limit yourself to building these relationships with women. Most of my mentors have been white men. It’s a numbers game—there are more of them.

Playing on an Uneven Field

Imani: It’s more difficult for people of color to raise money for organizations. You see a drop in individual donors and in foundation dollars. And when foundation dollars are given, they're given with more stipulations. As executive directors, fundraising is often how we measure our levels of success, and so just being in an executive leadership role is not an even playing field. And that's something that's really difficult to reconcile. We know that women of color, and people from experiences that haven't historically been amplified or centered, have important things to add to institutions and organizations that are ultimately going to make us better. Unfortunately, we are often evaluated with an uneven playing field.

Owning Your Story

Grace: It is obvious who I am—I am a Black woman. There is no hiding it, and I’ve never wanted to hide it. I’m a first-generation graduate, even from junior high school, but here I am now, a senior partner and leader at a global law firm. It doesn’t matter that I was born poor and raised by a single mom who wasn’t formally educated. It makes my clients and colleagues recognize that women, Black women, can be very successful—no matter where they start. When I represent companies in discrimination matters, I help those clients improve their company culture. I understand the experiences of Black individuals in the workplace. I help our clients understand it, too; that is a value add to my clients.

Being Open about Invisible Disabilities

Jasmine: I’m now very open about having an invisible disability. People do not recognize it immediately like if you have a mobility impairment, are a wheelchair user, or have a white cane—visual markers of disability. You may not identify me as someone with a disability. But I bring my invisible disability to the table. It reminds people that when we talk about diversity, we need to include people with disabilities. And we need to recognize that people of color can also be people with disabilities and vice versa. Recently we’ve seen a shift in firm cultures where lawyers feel safe identifying as a person with a learning or psychiatric disability, or being open that they have depression or anxiety. The normalization of mental health issues has been incredibly powerful.

Thinking about Work Allocation & Utilization Rate

Jean: If you are a forward-thinking firm you should not only be thinking about representation during these initial client meetings, but you should really be thinking about work allocation. What is the utilization rate? You bring in a diverse team to do the pitch, now you've gotten the work. Are you utilizing them for a glorified doc review or low-level work? Or for important work that will really elevate the profile of the person who pitched for the business and got the business? Clients are thinking about utilization rate, and if that’s news to you, I would start thinking about that.

Seizing Moments & Overcoming ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Sonia: As women of color, opportunities to elevate our platforms are often few and far between. When you get the chance, you need to seize the moment and rise to the occasion. Even if you don’t feel fully prepared for it, I know you are. Those partners and clients who hired you know that you are. You can’t let that imposter syndrome seep in. I understand how it feels, as one of the few women—and often the only Latina woman—in rooms dominated by white men, that imposter syndrome has crept in for me. Don’t let that happen to you. You earned that seat. Now own it.