Recognize and Overcome the Insidious “No Mistakes” Bias

There are very real challenges that women of color continue to face in the workplace—including in the legal industry—even once they have made partner or achieved other measures of success. It is difficult to generalize the wide spectrum of biases and challenges that impact women of color in the workplace, as different individuals will face different challenges, but one challenge many women of color have faced is feeling like we don’t have any room to make mistakes.

A study conducted a few years ago found that law firm partners demonstrated an unconscious or implicit bias when evaluating the writing of African-American associates. I remember discussing the study with many lawyers of color, and the prevailing sentiment was that the study confirmed something we already knew: Mistakes we make may be perceived as incompetence as opposed to just mistakes. Because this can be extremely stressful and take a toll on your self-esteem and confidence, I think it is critical for women of color to develop a strong network of mentors early on to help navigate a professional environment where you need to take risks and not be paralyzed by the thought of making a mistake.

I know that one of the primary reasons I have been able to attain many of my professional goals is because I have had unbelievable mentors along the way. I know that making partner isn’t something that just happened to me because I’m smart, committed, and I worked very hard. While I believe those things to be true, the key was having influential people around me who believed in me too. There are a few pieces of advice I have received along the way, and one that has particularly stuck with me is that you need to always do your very best work and always be professional. It is also important for women of color to network and to maintain connections with former classmates, colleagues, and people we meet at events and conferences. Your reputation is everything, and it will define you.