Author and research fellow Tsedale M. Melaku (Photo courtesy of the author)

“You don’t look like a lawyer” was a comment often heard by the Black female attorneys interviewed by Tsedale M. Melaku, a sociologist and author. Melaku had originally wanted to go to law school and work for a law firm herself, but was turned off by the unforgiving lifestyle. She also noticed another fact of legal life: There were few Black female attorneys and close to zero Black female partners. “I wondered–what is it about this space that creates this dynamic? How does race and gender impact their career trajectories?”

Those questions led her to pursue a doctorate in sociology in which she examined the race and gender dynamic of law firms. In interviews with Black female attorneys, she tracked similar threads. “These women were often mistaken for non-attorney staff,” she said. “They constantly had to negotiate their presence and explain what put them in these positions–it’s like you have to read your resume every single time.”

Melaku spoke about her work last week in a conversation with Kristen Bellstrom, features editor for Fortune, on how these women’s experiences outline broader challenges of race, gender and class equity in the corporate world, offering steps that law firms and other organizations could take to make their workplaces more inclusive. They spoke at From Day One’s July virtual conference, The New Push for Workplace Equity.

Melaku, who is now a post-doctoral research fellow with the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas & the Caribbean at The Graduate Center (CUNY), turned her research into the 2019 book You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism. When Bellstrom pointed out that You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer might be considered an untraditional title for academic writing, Melaku said she felt the experiences of Black woman attorneys would resonate outside academia and law, speaking to larger challenges around race, gender and inequality in the workplace.

Kristen Bellstrom, left, features editor at Fortune, interviewed Melaku at the From Day One virtual conference

Her book also tackles big challenges standing in the way of workplace equity: structures of both systemic racism and systemic gendered racism, the “invisible labor clause” in which marginalized people spend time and energy navigating predominantly white spaces, and an “inclusion tax” that entails the resources spent–like time, money and labor–to adhere to or resist white norms.

Because there are few people of color in corporate spaces like law firms, Melaku explained, they can be easily tokenized as “diversity hires” or “benefits of affirmative action” by white colleagues. One step for law firms to improve is for white people in leadership to simply get to know more people of color than the few within the company, she added.

Corporate America also needs to move away from “diversity” as a catchphrase and move into real action that fosters more intersectional workplaces. “Name what the problem is in the organization–racial equity, gender equity–and make it a core value of your organization, and properly fund these values so people of color aren’t doing that work within,” said Melaku. Within U.S. law firms, the problem couldn’t be more stark: between 2008 and 2019 there has only been a .01% increase in the number of Black attorneys, she said.

Melaku suggested making changes to recruitment strategies, examining workplace culture that pressures employees to “fit in,” and re-evaluating training, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities offered to attorneys early in their career. “Why can’t Black women bridge those gaps with white males to gain access to sponsors?” she asked. “What are we not saying?”

Sponsors who advocate for attorneys of color, and pass along insight like soft skills to build client relationships or practices around billing and time, can serve as powerful allies to increase workplace equity. “It’s someone who will publicly do that racial and gender work, so everyone sees they are holding themselves accountable for what goes on in the organization,” Melaku said.

She believes now is the time for law firm employees to “step up in the moment” and become allies who take a critical look at how practices, policies and culture hinder workplace equity. Those actions could be bolstered simply by learning and listening.

She suggested a reading list beyond her own book: Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression by Joe R. Feagin, Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Reproducing Racism: White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality by Wendy Leo Moore.

“Build your own knowledge base and then listen,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to listen.”

Editor's note: Participants in the session asked if Tsedale Melaku would recommend additional titles for further reading, which she has provided:

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.