Women as Allies Across Difference

Conversations about women and bias often focus on a binary dynamic: the relationship between men—who historically have been in positions of authority and influence in professional environments, and women—who are often navigating the workplace with the additional burden of having to overcome gendered assumptions informed by bias, conscious or not, about their aptitude and leadership abilities.

For some women, however, that doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s yet another dynamic to consider: gender is only one part of a person’s identity. I am not only a woman; I am also a first generation professional woman of color. Each of those aspects of my identity factor into the challenges I encounter and further differentiates me from, say, a white woman who has two parents who are professionals—lawyers or otherwise.

Research shows that women of color encounter more microagressions, double standards and unconscious biases in the workplace than either white women or men of color. They are more likely to be considered unqualified, even if they hold the same credentials as their white and male colleagues, and they are less likely to receive the support and mentoring they need in order to advance in their careers.

Therefore, in order to talk in earnest about women helping other women, we have to talk about how to help women across difference, especially across racial and class divides. This makes sense. How can you help someone if you do not have a basic understanding of their intersectional identity and the specific challenges they face?

In an episode of the Harvard Business Review podcast Women at Work titled Sisterhood is Power, professors of management Tina Opie and Veronica Rabelo talk about what women can do to become allies to women from different backgrounds. One recommendation is to listen and empathize when women of color share stories of vulnerability, and, importantly, to allow those women’s stories to be their own. Many of us have a tendency to reciprocate with our own experiences, and while that inclination may be driven by empathy and a desire to connect, we should consider whether at that moment the best way to validate the person’s courage for sharing is by simply thanking them for trusting us with their story.

Opie and Rabelo also point out that many women of color, especially in a corporate environment, frequently find themselves called upon to represent the “diverse” view. That’s certainly a valuable and important perspective to seek, but it’s equally important to consider that it can also be a burden. Instead, start by self-educating. You likely already have access to a number of resources where women’s varied life experiences and viewpoints are represented—in movies, podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, books and news articles.

Finally, Opie and Rabelo encourage each of us to consider how we can use our own privilege for good, and create and promote opportunities for women of color in the workplace. That could be anything from delegating a stretch assignment, to nominating someone to a committee, to validating or seeking someone’s input in a meeting.

To advance gender equality in the legal profession and in the corporate world more broadly, women must come together to support and advocate for each other at work. This starts with the acknowledgement that not all women are the same. Each of us has an opportunity to build awareness around and across cultural and class differences, so that we can be true allies to one another. Let’s take it.

Mari Cardenas is a Debevoise alumna currently clerking for the Honorable Andrew L. Carter in the Southern District of New York.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.