What Kids Can Teach Lawyers About Diversity and Representation

representationRemember that Cheerios commercial from a few years ago? It starred a black dad, a white mom, and their biracial daughter. You might have heard about it, and the reactions to it. Many Americans were indifferent, some Americans were disgusted, and me? I was ecstatic. At that ad, and so many other ads, from State Farm, Swiffer, and Old Navy, that feature inter-racial couples and multi-racial families. I feel joy, actual joy, because I see a family portrayed in the media that looks just like mine. (Well, somewhat. We are less model-esque.) “Finally,” I think. “We are part of the mainstream narrative. We are represented.”

The Power of Representation

It’s a powerful thing, representation. The realization that people like you are part of a narrative larger than yourself. And it struck me recently as to how early that feeling takes hold, and how it can impact the rest of your life, including, say, your tenure at a law firm.

My children, like the children in those ads, are half-black and half-white. Because of that, and considering only 7% of the country identifies as multiracial, they almost never see people who look like them represented in media. So imagine my four-year-old daughter’s delight when she saw just that.

A few weeks ago, we were at a supermarket in Chicago. All of a sudden, my daughter leaps out of her stroller and shouts, “Look mama! It’s me!” She was right. There in front of us was a box of Pampers diapers with a boy on it, who really did look just like her. Light brown skin, hazel eyes, and a curly blond afro. She was delighted.

Representation Matters for Self-Esteem

See, people like to see people who look just like them. “Just like me” is even the basis of one of the strongest implicit biases we have, in-group bias. We prefer people who look like us, who belong to our “tribe” so to speak. We do it for trust, protection, safety, and belonging. But most crucially, according to research, we do it for self-esteem. Seeing someone who looks like us increases our own self-esteem. We have a more positive impression of people who look like us, increasing our own positive impression of ourselves.

So what does this have to do with representation? Because self-esteem, I think, is a slightly different rationale for increasing diversity and encouraging inclusion, and another explanation of why our efforts keep stalling. If you want diverse people to be a part of your organization, then there must be people at the top who look like the people you want to attract, and who, in turn, can build up that self-esteem and sense of belonging for the diverse people joining your organization. If those people aren’t at the top, then the people coming in at the bottom are less likely to stay because they don’t see a space for them above. It’s a catch-22 that even children understand.

Children Understand Why Representation Matters

Here’s one study that remains famous, and rightfully so – it played a key role in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1947, two researchers gave a group of three to seven-year-old black children black and white dolls and asked which they preferred. Overwhelmingly, the children preferred the “good” white doll to the “bad” black doll. One experience that a researcher found particularly troubling:  Interesting fact about the test. The researchers couldn’t find any black dolls in 1947. They had to use white dolls painted brown.

Decades later, the lessons of the study still resound. Five years ago, researchers studied 396 white and black pre-teens. The study found that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for black girls, black boys and white girls. However television led to an increase in self-esteem among white boys. Why? Because for women, preteen shows often show one-dimensional, sexualized depictions of them. Meanwhile, black people, if shown, are often criminalized or shown as hoodlums and buffoons. For white boys on the other hand, it’s a very different story. If you’re a white male, the researchers explained, “[y]ou tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.” What kid wouldn’t want to be that?

The Legal Profession Needs Increased Leadership Representation

We know the legal profession is not doing well in diversity, particularly at the leadership level. According to NALP’s 2016 Diversity Report, minorities constitute 22.72% of associates in large law firms but only 8.05% of partners. The number for minority women is even starker: only 2.76% of partners are minority women. Meanwhile, women account for 45% of associates at law firms. However they only account for 22.13% of law firm partners. Crucially, among non-equity partners who graduated law school in 2004 and later, 62% were men and only 38% were women.

We know the many, many, many reasons for the continued lack of diverse leadership in the legal profession. Increasing representation isn’t an easy task, but the reality is, if we want to increase diversity in our profession, we have to increase the representation of our leadership as well. It’s a cycle, vicious and unending. And it makes a difference, particularly since our lack of diversity seems to exclude the many groups who aspire to belong to our profession. From the 2010 ABA Next Steps Report:

The legal profession has … historically provided access to income and wealth commensurate with the “American Dream.” Historically, racial and ethnic groups, women, and other marginalized groups have recognized that a law degree accelerates their social and economic mobility. If any part of our profession—especially the vast and powerful fields of private practice—fails to be diverse and inclusive, we are sending meaningful symbolic messages to members of underrepresented groups, especially those of lower socioeconomic status.

“Meaningful symbolic messages.” The children in those research studies understand exactly what those are. So does my 4 year-old daughter. Representation matters. Self-esteem matters. We all want to see ourselves represented, no matter how old we are, whether in a law firm board room, or on a box of Pampers diapers.

So if you remain frustrated as to why our profession’s diversity numbers are stalled, even after all the time and money and effort spent on diversity initiatives, look at how many women and minorities are represented in the positions of power. How many are on compensation committees and management committees? How many are recognized as powerful sponsors? How many are given credit for high-profile clients? How many are marketed as the key partners for the firm? How many are even there in the first place? Kids understand why representation matters. So should we.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

2 thoughts on “What Kids Can Teach Lawyers About Diversity and Representation

  1. So very proud of you, Michelle, for this very well-written blog spot. I also love the video piece of you. Keep up the great work!

  2. I loved this article, which I read in Legal Management. My daughter has had the exact same reaction to things she has seen on TV or other advertising when she sees another child who looks like her. Children have so much to teach us!

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