14 February 2021
International Legal Sector

“You don´t look like a lawyer”: Interview with Tsedale M. Melaku


The Impact Lawyers had the pleasure to speak to Tsedale M. Melaku about the issue of workplace diversity and racial and gender inequality in the USA, focusing particularly on the legal sector 

Tsedale M. Melaku is a Sociologist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.

From your point of view, what´s the situation today in the U.S. work environment regarding equality in terms of race, gender and social class?

From my point of view, and also given the data that´s available, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) continue to have a difficult time navigating white institutional spaces, a theoretical concept developed by Wendy Leo Moore. There are a number of studies that reflect the impact of racial discrimination in the workplace. And from my research alone, which is the perspective I´m going to focus on, Black women lawyers face a number of barriers in law firms today. And just to give you an idea, this manifests in other organizations as well, not just law firms. Black women are pressured to conform to dominant white normative perspectives which isolate and create a significant amount of invisible labor for them. They are perceived to be diversity hires rather than qualified candidates, and as a result of tokenism they are often mistaken for non-lawyer staff like office services or paralegals. They have a difficult time accessing professional development and training which is really essential in their ability to develop their craft

They are often excluded from networking opportunities which is critical to developing relationships outside of the firm but also within. And Black women also have an incredibly difficult time forming and developing mentor relationships, but primarily sponsor relationships. Sponsor relationships are a key ingredient in gaining access to soft-skills, substantive deal work, relationships with leadership/clients, and being able develop within the firm—which then leads to advancement prospects. I introduce and develop two theoretical concepts that help to discuss the experiences of Black women lawyers, the invisible labor clause and the inclusion tax. Black women have to navigate racial and gendered aggression that impact their experiences and create additional invisible labor meted out through the inclusion tax that I develop and discuss in my book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.

Black women have to expend significant invisible labor, which includes emotional and mental energy just to navigate the firm and the discourse around their visibility. I discuss this thoroughly in the name chapter of my book. Black women are forced to engage in very careful presentation and impression management to avoid stereotypes and prejudices. I think all of this is still very prevalent in U.S. work environments, and does focus on the intersection of gender, race, social class and other identities that play a role in how people are perceived and their experiences.


Do you think the Black Lives Matter Movement that aims to fight racism across the globe will have an impact on the process of recruitment and personnel selection in U.S. companies, in terms of inclusion and diversity?

I want to be hopeful that this is going to happen, but I can´t ignore history. I think this present movement to address racial and social justice needs to be more than just statements and declarations of support. Public affirmations and commitments to racial equity needs to be addressed within institutions and not just on the streets. You know that a lot of law firms and organizations in the U.S. have come out publicly to support the protests and the Black Lives Matter Movement – I fear this may have been done in the hopes of creating a public perception of their organization, not missing the moment. What I think is necessary here—is to address it within their four walls, which means recognizing and making racial equity intrinsic to the organization, not just additive. It means taking this as a core value and mission of the organization. So right now, again, across the board organizations in various industries are saying that racial equity is important, but I want to see more than just them saying that—how are they going to make changes recognizing the deficiencies in the organizations?, How are they going to address the inequities that, for example, Black workers face day in and day out?, How is their statement reflected in the experiences of people of color who are already in that space? There needs to be accountability and that comes directly from leadership and stakeholders. So, I want to be hopeful, I want to think in those ways but I can´t ignore the experience of those folks who are in that space.

Now I would like to talk a little bit about your book “You don´t look like a Lawyer”. How did you come up with the idea of writing the book?

This idea came out of my doctoral work. I worked as a corporate paralegal while doing my PhD and in that process, I decided to examine the experiences of Black women lawyers in law firms, since they were practically non-existent in the associate and partner positions. The whole time I worked in the firms—about 11 and a half years—I did not encounter a Black female partner, and there were a handful, maybe 3 Black female associates that I worked with in that entire time, which just baffled me. So I really wanted to understand why there were so few Black women and how race and gender impacted the career trajectories of those that were able to break through the door.

I think that was important because research like that hadn’t been done that centred Black woman in law firms, and lead firms in particular. It was really important for me to try to take my personal experience of unravelling the ways that race and gender impact advancement in a firm and then finding a way to engage a population that is completely side-lined. The idea for the book came about through the doctoral work and then I was lucky to meet a scholar who supported my research and thought that it was valuable and important and that it should reach a much wider audience. This research is useful not just within academic circles, but for individuals that may need information and possible ways of navigating and dealing with what they are experiencing in firms through this work. That’s how it ended up turning into a general interest book

Could you sum up the essence of the book?

I utilize narratives of Black female lawyers so that we can learn about the underlying challenges that lead to their high attrition rate, understanding why there are so few of them in that space. In the book I draw from their experiences that center how systemic gendered racism is so ingrained within institutional practices in white institutional spaces. The book covers topic such as appearance, white narratives of affirmative action, differences and similarities with white women and Black men, exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities, lack of mentors, sponsors and access to substantive training. I really talk about that in various ways within all the chapters and I highlight the often hidden mechanisms law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a very dominant white male system. The findings that I have regarding the experiences of Black female lawyers point to the existence of subtle aggressions that is indicative of race and gender discrimination.

Also for women of color and Black women in particular, how their professional appearance is linked to their perceived ability, recognizing that all of these factors significantly disadvantage women of color as compared to their white counterparts. This creates a concrete obstacle towards advancement. More than anything, I think that these experiences of Black women are not unique to the law firms setting. I think women in different industries and institutions share similar experiences, particularly if they are one of few, or the only women of color in white institutional spaces.

In which ways are black women working in the legal sector being treated differently from white women?

I think that there are various ways that we see the effects of systemic gendered racism on the experiences of Black women which highlight the uniqueness of their experiences. I have a chapter in the book that focuses on discussing the differences and similarities between Black women and white women, isolating gender, as well as how this looks like for Black women vs. Black men, isolating race. With respect to the differences between white women and Black women, there are professional networks that white women can tap into for support and guidance which advantages them. Also, in regard to the concept of “fitting in” it´s harder to conform for Black women, because of physical differences such as hair – the burden of “fitting in” is less for white women.

Black female lawyers have to work the hardest to maintain the image of a lawyer.

Also, stakeholders are usually white and more sympathetic to white women, therefore forming organic relationships with them may be easier. If you can´t form those relationships organically, that creates a sense of exclusion. There is a lot of key words and language that is being used in these spaces to exclude people of color. Black women have to address difficulties regarding their Blackness and their femaleness – both race and gender. This adds a significant amount of pressure which leads to invisible labor and this idea of having to pay an inclusion tax—“spending” resources to navigate, negotiate to be included in this space. White female associates have an advantage over Black women because of the similarities they share with white male partners, and particularly the notion that white female associates remind white male partners of their own daughters.

This is a key area I focus on in the book, that being both a Black person and a woman matters because of white racial framing. The white racial frame is a theoretical concept developed by Joe Feagin which argues that we operate out of a dominant white perspective that only sees things from a white point of view (drawing on narratives, ideologies, emotions, stereotypes, images) and therefore ignores the perspective and views of people of color, and as a result this reinforces white power and maintains racial inequality. This white racial frame works to normalize white spaces that then advantages white women over black women. This is a critical area in terms of the differences between white women and Black women within this space. 

Could you explain what you mean by the invisible labour clause you refer to in your book?

I introduce and advance the concept of the invisible labour clause to explain how marginalized groups including Black women, women as a whole, people of color, LGBT+ are required to perform added invisible labor in order to navigate their daily existence within these professional spaces. The concept can be applied to varying groups and institutional spaces. I also introduce this inclusion tax concept which is essentially a way to describe the different resources that are “spent,” such money, mental and cognitive energy that is used just to be allowed in these institutional spaces and to adhere to or resist white norms. I further develop the concept to include a new way of looking at what the emotional labor entails, as well as further conceiving the financial tax, the emotional tax, the relational tax and the cognitive tax. Throughout the book I give examples of what that actually looks like.

What is your outlook for the future in regards to workplace diversity and equality in law firms?

I am hopeful, but I think organizations have a long way to go. In order to do that we have to recognize that minimum progress is not enough to address racial and gender inequities in the workplace. You know they really need to move past talking about what equity looks like, so diversity and inclusion mantras are just that, catchphrases at this point, where there´s no meaning behind that. We need to have organizations move past talking about that and start actually doing, this really means holding their leadership accountable and re-evaluating their measures of success. I think that´s critical for looking forward in terms of how we are going to find ways to mitigate the negative impact that race and gender inequities create for marginalized groups.

Thanks for the interview, it was very interesting. Would you like to add anything else? 

One thing that I would like to add is regarding the question whether there have been significant changes in the last decade – I think this is a critical question in this moment, because to my point of view there have been no significant changes. Data shows that Black lawyers are significantly underrepresented in law firms and this doesn’t differ much from findings in academia, medicine or STEM – three other really prominent areas where there is a lack of representation of Black workers. Looking at the 2019 report on diversity from U.S. law firms of The National Association of Law Placement, the data shows that it has taken 10 years for black associates to surpass their 2009 figures, which was 4.66 per cent - ten years later it´s at 4.76 per cent.

The increase is so small that it´s a contradiction to what progress should look like. We know that women of color continue to be underrepresented, but Black women in particular, their numbers are even below the 2009 level – in 2009 they were a 2.93 per cent, and in 2019 they were at 2.8 per cent. I think that´s important to consider when we are looking at Black women lawyers, and also in relation to this particular moment. If you think about what the coronavirus pandemic has done and how it influences these numbers and the impact that it will have on Black workers, we have a lot of work to do.

In the case of law firms, when there are not enough women or people of color to begin with, they tend to disappear during times of crisis. As a result of this pandemic, organizations will implement strategies to try to avoid economic hardship like lay off, salary cuts and so on, and all of that affects people of color disproportionately. We know that because research has already shown that the economic fallout from the 2008 Great Recession impacted the hiring, training, and advancement prospects of marginalized groups and their access to law firms. So, of course COVID-19 is going to impact people of color as whole, and Black workers specifically. These marginalized groups will be disproportionally affected. I think that really just engages what this moment looks like moving forward for Black workers.

Tsedale M. Melaku Bio

Tsedale M. Melaku is a Sociologist, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the 2019 book You Don't Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, which reflects the emphasis of her scholarly interests on race, gender, class, workplace inequality, diversity, and occupations. You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer focuses on how race and gender play a crucial role in the experiences of women of color in traditionally white institutional spaces. Dr. Melaku’s work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Bloomberg Law, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, NBC Left Field, the TODAY Show, and the Fair Observer. Her interdisciplinary research on women in the workplace unites three strands of significant sociological inquiry: diversity in the workplace, women in positions of leadership, and the impact of intersectional identities on advancement opportunity. Presently, she is further developing her theories on invisible labor and its impact on marginalized individuals. Dr. Melaku is currently editing The Handbook on Workplace Diversity and Stratification. She received her Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Sociology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and her B.A. in Sociology and Africana studies from New York University. To learn more about her research and interests follow her on Twitter, @TsedaleMelaku or visit her website.

Copyright © The Impact Lawyers. All rights reserved. This information or any part of it may not be copied or disseminated in any way or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of The Impact Lawyers. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of The Impact Lawyers.

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