Stalled by Unconscious Bias: Challenges Black Women Face in the Legal Profession
The Bar can be a challenging and isolating profession for women of colour who continue to be at a disadvantage due to systemic structures that breed inequality. For Black women striving to make an impact in the legal profession, it can often feel as though the odds are stacked against them, having to act scripted roles that undermine their identity and abilities.
The Scale of the Problem
Women (black women, in particular) in the legal profession continue to be victims of problematic and inaccurate assumptions.
The recent experience of Alexandra Wilson, a black female barrister, vividly illustrates the entrenched nature of unconscious bias in the legal profession. Ms Wilson, a graduate of Oxford University, was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day and ordered to leave the court room by a clerk who wrongly assumed she was a defendant.
Sadly, this is not an unusual occurrence for women of colour in the legal profession. Natasha Shotunde, co-founder of Black Barristers’ Network recounted a similar experience where she was repeatedly mistaken for a defendant during her time as a criminal barrister.
The connecting thread between Shotunde and Wilson’s experiences is an implicit assumption held about black people. Ingrained in people is a problematic association of black people with crime, delinquency and underachievement.
Such deep-seated prejudice inevitably leads to two disturbing outcomes:
#1 Glaring Lack of Diversity at the Top of the Legal Profession
Very few black women rise to the top of the profession having been worn out by having to continuously justify their existence and worth.
In their 2019 report on gender equality in the legal profession, the Law Society identified perceptions of unconscious bias as the main barrier for career progression of female lawyers. Considered as experts in the legal profession, only 1.1% of Queen’s Counsels (QCs) are from a Black/Black British ethnic group – a stark reminder that many capable Black legal practitioners remain outsiders at the highest levels of the profession.
#2 Widening Gender Pay Gap
For tenacious Black women who persist and remain in the profession, they are trapped in low paying roles and fail to receive appropriate remuneration for their work. In a recent report into pay at the Bar, it was found that 44.9% female barristers from minority ethnic groups are in the lowest two income bands compared to 19.4% of their White male counterparts. The reasons for this disparity are varied but one plausible reason is the continuous favouritism around work allocation, with white male counterparts assigned more lucrative ‘glory work’ while women are given ‘housekeeping work’ (Law Society, 2019).
The disturbing experiences of Alexandra Wilson, Natasha Shotunde and other Black women in the legal profession clearly highlights a strong imperative to address the silent killer of many black women’s legal career – unconscious bias. This pervasive problem requires a multi-pronged approach that involves breaking down homogenous, male-dominated decision structures, comprehensive overhaul of recruitment systems and mandatory unconscious bias training at all levels of an organisation.
By Dammy Olatoye
Unconscious bias refers to both positive and negative attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, decisions or actions concerning an individual or group in an unconscious manner
- The Law Society, 2019