Is Diversity Generational?

I think it might be.

May 13, 2019, By Elizabeth Anne "Betiayn" Tursi

I recently read a Berkshire Hathaway SEC filing stating that it does not consider diversity when hiring board members. Here’s the key passage:

“Berkshire does not have a policy regarding diversity in identifying nominees for director. In identifying director nominees, the Governance Committee does not seek diversity, however defined. Instead, as previously discussed, the Governance Committee looks for individuals who have very high integrity, business-savvy, an owner-oriented attitude and a deep genuine interest in the company.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that of the 17 Berkshire Hathaway Board members only four are women. And perhaps even less surprising: the average age of the Board members is seventy-one.

To me, this laissez-faire approach favored by old men suggests why diversity in elite institutions is so hard to come by.

It’s also why I am not at all surprised by the dismal levels of diversity among women and men of color in law firms. Most leaders of major law firms are men in their late fifties and early sixties. Not quite as bad as the Berkshire Hathaway Board members average age, but not a fountain of youth either.

I think many heads of law firms are sincere about wanting to see more diversity in their firms, but doing something that changes the paradigm is another story. Of course it begs the question as to whether it would be different if more women headed up law firms. Maybe yes…maybe no.

We certainly know there are a number of accomplished women who have never helped junior women. Even after Madeleine Albright’s famous “call to action”— “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”—we haven’t seen remarkable results.

Over the years I have spoken with many young women of color who joined prestigious law firms but stayed no more than two to three years. Why? A variety of reasons—many the same as white women—workload, lack of empathy among those supervising them, etc. But many women of color have told me they believed they were treated disrespectfully by their older male peers and in some cases made them feel uncomfortable.

The conversations I had with these women came long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It always saddened me to think these extraordinary young women were marginalized because of their skin color.

I have always been a positive person. I wake up every day with an expectation I am doing something that will make a difference. Rarely am I disappointed because at least once a day I hear from someone who has interacted with WILEF and wants to get involved. Each of these encounters makes my day.

But for all WILEF is doing, I am still disappointed by the profession’s lack of diversity. How do we change the landscape? Maybe the next generation has the answers.

Elizabeth Anne “Betiayn” Tursi is the Co-Founder and Global Chair of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF).