Although I haven’t posted any blawgs for quite a while, I haven’t stopped working on diversity issues in the legal community, and I’ve continued to present workshops on diversity and inclusion issues, including Elimination of Bias CLE programs. As you probably know, every three years California lawyers are required to complete one hour of CLE credit on this topic. I don’t think the State Bar really believes that anyone can eliminate bias with one hour of training, but it is an aspirational goal. Perhaps the course should be named “Awareness of Bias,” followed by an hour or more of ways to foster empathy for others and to offer suggestions for changing behavior.
I am fully aware that change takes time. I’ve even accepted the idea that only incremental change is possible. However, it is frustrating to read survey after survey that reports glacial movement in the promotion of women and diverse lawyers to partnership and management roles in law firms, in spite of years of efforts by diversity committees. Of course, there are exceptions and success stories, and firms continue to fine-tune their initiatives. For those who crave more opportunity, many diverse lawyers have found success by creating their own firms, taking in-house positions, or using their legal background to foster change in other ways.
In wondering about why change seems to be so slow, my book club may have helped provide some answers. As a person who never thought of joining a book club, I’ve been surprised and delighted by reading books that weren’t on my radar and am enjoying being involved in discussions with people who take reading seriously. The group suggested reading “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari and I was struck by his ideas about hierarchies. According to Harari, “Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.” He also says, “it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.”
Is it possible that the law firm hierarchy reinforces the idea that only certain people are qualified to be partners? Or that only people from certain backgrounds are given the best work assignments? Does the hierarchy determine compensation based on factors other than merit? If you’re a member of the top end of the hierarchy, can you notice when you consider someone to be “other” than you?
In this country, we sometimes consider other cultures as being less evolved. As Harari writes:
“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”
Shaping a new narrative
One of the things that sets us apart from non-humans is our ability to create fiction. We are constantly creating narratives to explain our world and our viewpoints. During my coaching training, we discussed how important our stories are in helping us understand what we experience in the world. Because we become so identified with our own stories, it is difficult to step back and challenge our assumptions about who we are and what we’re doing here. It’s even harder to see that our perceptions are shaped by a structure that was created in someone’s (or many someone’s) imagination. That structure is usually a hierarchy of some kind.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe change is possible. We first have to be aware of our own beliefs and how we respond to the structures around us. We have to recognize that our brains literally search for what we have in common with each person we meet, and notice when instead of seeking commonalities, we look for “otherness.” Instead of making a judgment at that point, we have to train ourselves to develop empathy. At a first meeting, we can’t know what another person’s experience of the world has been, but we owe it to them to understand how their experience shaped who they are now, and how that experience can contribute to a richer world for all of us.