Are Diverse Partners Punished for Advocating Diversity?

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By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

Sept. 28 — Women and nonwhite attorneys may be punished for promoting diversity at their workplaces, a recent study suggests.

This finding could be another stumbling block for the legal profession as it seeks to increase diversity in its ranks, especially at the highest levels.

The study suggests that women and nonwhite executives are judged negatively when they engage in “diversity-valuing behavior,” such as hiring diverse employees.

Women and nonwhite corporate executives who promoted diversity were given “much worse” competence and performance ratings than were their counterparts who didn't promote diversity, according to an article by two of the study's authors.

The study surveyed 350 executives on diversity-valuing behaviors.

“Diversity-valuing behavior” is behavior which promotes demographic balance within organizations, the article says.

Status Matters

These negative ratings rest on how employees are perceived while pushing for diversity, Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman say in the article.

White men are a “high status group” whose competence is assumed and so they can “deviate from the status quo,” the article says.

This means white men can adopt a diversity-promoting agenda without anyone questioning it, it says.

Diverse executives, however, belong to a “low-status group,” so when they advocate for other members of their group, they activate “the stereotype of incompetence,” and it leads to worse performance ratings, it says.

This can lead to women and minorities “choosing not to advocate for other women and minorities once they reach positions of power,” the article says.

Hekman is a professor and Johnson is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business.

Hekman's scholarship includes remedies for pervasive workplace racial and gender biases. Johnson's interests focus on the effects of unconscious biases in the evaluation of women and minorities and how to mitigate those biases.

Data Talks

Studies on attorney demographics show that women and minorities are underrepresented in the legal profession.

In 2016, women accounted for 25 percent of general counsels at Fortune 500 companies, up from 23 percent in 2015 and 21 percent in 2014, Mark Roellig, a general counsel at a Fortune 500 company told Bloomberg BNA.

The 2014 and 2015 data is available in Roellig's article.

Roellig, who is executive vice president and general counsel of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company and honorary chair of the ABA's Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission, co-authored the article with Catherine Simes, a 2015 summer law clerk at Mass Mutual.

Women comprised 17.4 percent of equity partners in multi-tier law firms in 2015, up from 17.1 percent in 2014 and 16.5 percent in 2013, according to research by the National Association for Law Placement, Inc.

For the past 20 years, however, women have made up almost half of the law school graduating class, a NALP study says.

Ten percent of general counsel in 2015 and 2014 were attorneys of color, up from 9 percent in 2013, Roellig's article says.

5.6 percent of equity partners were minorities in 2015 and 2014, up from 5.4 percent in 2013, according to NALP's research.

A ‘Reticence.'

Does the Hekman-Johnson study explain this slow growth in diversity?

One general counsel said that she hasn't seen general counsels penalized for diversity-promoting behavior, but she's noticed a reticence.

“I have seen diverse executives who hesitate to be leaders on diversity,” Trish Walsh, chief legal officer for Voya Financial, told Bloomberg BNA.

She believes this is for “fairly complicated reasons.”

“If you are the sole woman on an executive team, for example, you might hesitate to lead on issues related to the advancement of women in the workplace out of concern that such actions are self-promoting,” Walsh said.

Another reason might be “out of a desire NOT to call attention to the fact that you are not like the others—it can highlight your difference,” she said.

Priority for All

The study reenforces that all members of a team, both diverse and non-diverse, need to make advocating for diversity a priority.

“The challenge of creating equality should not be placed on the shoulders of individuals who are at greater risk of being crushed by the weight of this goal,” the Johnson-Hekman article said.

However, Hekman told Bloomberg BNA that men are “pretty hesitant” to recruit women or minority mentees, at least partly due to the fear that “I want a woman” might be perceived as “creepy.”

If these men volunteer to be a mentor and are assigned a woman or minority, “then it works,” he said.

Still, Roellig believes that with the right work environment, everyone can promote diversity without the fear of negative repercussions.

“If you create an environment where people feel respected and valued and their input is really important, then I don't see any challenges or reticence by women or people of color to advance their thoughts,” Roellig told Bloomberg BNA.

“It's really important for a team to really be a team,” Mark Roellig told Bloomberg BNA.

Roellig, who's white, has worked as general counsel at four companies, including Mass Mutual, and said he hasn't experienced situations like the ones described in Johnson & Hekman's article.

He believes a big reason for this is because of the safe, secure and supportive environments that existed at these places.

“But law firms have really struggled with that,” he said.

This explains the “demographic disparity” between the leadership of corporate legal teams and that at law firms, Roellig said.

Pressure Tactics

Walsh believes that corporate diversity is due, in part, to external pressures to bring about change.

“I think companies—particularly public companies—are much more sensitive to diversity on average because their stakeholders really do evaluate them on that basis,” Walsh said.

There is a united focus on diversity from customers, investors and company boards to improve diversity, which is a good thing, she said.

We are “absolutely better off competing in the world when we look like the world we compete in,” Walsh said.

Roellig and Simes exert this same pressure on law firms in their article.

“What is clear is that corporate America wants and values diversity in its entire team, both in-house and among the outside counsel that they engage,” their article says.

If law firms don't improve their numbers, they “are likely to alienate their clients and ultimately lose business—or go out of business!” it says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at

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