Backstory: A Slow Road for Women and Minorities

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 10:20

The number of minorities holding the top legal position in Fortune 500 companies slipped this year, while the number of women holding General Counsel or equivalent positions continued to rise, according to MCCA’s 16th Annual General Counsel Survey, released in the November-December issue of Diversity & the Bar.

There are 51 minority legal chiefs in the Fortune 500, down from 54 last year, a change MCCA attributes to turnover among African-American GCs, whose numbers fell from 29 last year to 25 this year as a quarter overall left their positions. Women fared better, though with 120 top-level positions they remain on the short side of a 2-to-1 gender imbalance. According to MCCA, their count rose by seven this year, and by 15 over the last two years, a noteworthy jump. This marked the fifth straight year the number of women among Fortune 500 GCs topped 100.

In its recent demographic survey, conducted every five years, the Association of Corporate Counsel reported similar gains from a broader group of in-house respondents, though on the downside ACC also reported that women are earning less than male counterparts in comparable positions. 

Joseph K. West, MCCA president and CEO, says the minority numbers are even more unfortunate when considered against a backdrop of more than 60 companies that have appointed new top in-house counsel since the last survey. 

“There has been plenty of opportunity in the past year,” he told Diversity & the Bar, “so there’s clearly a need for more bench strength.”

West, who joined MCCA in 2011 from his position as associate general counsel with WalMart, recently announced his departure from the organization to join Duane Morris as a practicing litigator and co-chief diversity and inclusion officer. During his tenure, the number of minority lawyers holding top legal jobs in the Fortune 500 climbed from 41 to 54 before falling back to 51 this year. That’s an increase of 2 percentage points. The number of women in top positions jumped from 101 to 120, an improvement of 4 percentage points. The 51 positions held by attorneys of color were split between 31 men and 20 women. 

MCCA further breaks down the minority numbers:

25 African-Americans, 15 Asian-Pacific Americans and 11 Hispanics hold the top legal job at their Fortune 500 companies. That compares with U.S. census figures that show a population that’s 17 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African-American and 5 percent Asian-Pacific. Based on raw numbers alone, admittedly a crude measure, Asian-Pacific Americans, African-Americans and, especially, Hispanics are making slow progress in U.S. corporate law departments. 

While there has certainly been progress, particularly, as West notes, in the development of women, it has been a slow road. That’s one reason why the slip in the percentage of African-American GCs, which may look inconsequential to some, is so wrenching to others. When progress proceeds in small increments, setbacks loom all that much larger. 

And then there’s the special – or especially troubling – case of the advancement of women of color. The new survey shows white women racing ahead of minority women at a 5-to-1 clip. Michelle Banks, chair of MCCA’s Board of Directors, laments the situation, quoting a minority female as saying, “Minority women lawyers bear the burden of both their color and gender, yet enjoy the privileges of neither.” 

Still, Banks, executive VP, global GC, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Gap, is encouraged by the overall progress of women in the Fortune 500 – but hardly euphoric given that twice as many men as women are landing the top legal jobs at elite companies. 

“It doesn’t surprise me,” she says. “Unconscious bias is alive and well, unfortunately, in every work environment, including corporate America.”