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Minority Women Are More Ambitious. Why Aren't They Getting Ahead?

How ironic: Despite their low status as minorities among minorities, women of color are resolute in their determination to get ahead. In fact, minority women tend to be much more ambitious than their white sisters and, in some cases, more than white men.

That ambition seems counterintuitive, considering how few minority women make it to equity partnership in Big Law (2.81 percent) or the C-suite of major corporations (3.9 percent). Yet that's the revelation in the latest McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org study on women in the workplace. Consider these findings:

  • Minority women (76 percent or more, depending on ethnicity) are more likely than white women (68 percent) to seek advancement.

  • Some groups of minority women aspire to obtain promotions more than men (83 percent of Asian women and 80 percent of black women vs. just 75 percent of all men).

  • Asian women topped all groups of men and women in negotiating for raises and promotions (34 percent negotiated for raises and 44 percent for promotions vs. 29 percent and 36 percent for men, respectively).

  • More women of color than white women want to be a top executive (38 percent of black women, 44 percent of Latina women and 51 percent of Asian women vs. just 29 percent of white women)

While we might expect a gender divide in workplace attitudes, what's jolting is the apparent ambition gap between women of color and white women. Though all women face enormous hurdles in reaching the top (remember, women make up only 20 percent of equity partners), white women dominate that select club. (The 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey found that white women are making gains in law firms.) If any group should feel encouraged about going for the brass ring, it should be white women. Why, then, are more of them hanging back while women of color are fighting the daunting odds?

Some women of color say they feel they have no choice but to push forward. "Culturally, it's not unusual to find black, Hispanic or Asian women with family responsibility at an early age," says Paula Boggs, Starbucks' former general counsel and the first female African-American partner at Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates). After her parents' divorce, Boggs says, she took care of her three siblings: "At 13, I was responsible for babysitting and standing in for my mom in certain situations. My story is typical in the African-American community."

Sandra Leung, the general counsel of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., says she's not surprised that minority women strive harder. "White women are used to relying on white men," Leung says. "They are more supported in corporate environments." As a result, she says, women of color feel they have to be more self-reliant: "I didn't think of relying on someone else. It's our reality." With nine girls and one boy in her family, Leung says she "worked in all kinds of crazy jobs through school" and never thought of slowing her work pace: "I never took time off except for maternity leave." She adds, "Work/life balance is an illusion anyway. It's conjured up to make us feel guilty. It comes down to making choices."

Which brings us to this question: Are white women making the choice to be less ambitious because they can? To put it bluntly: Are they too comfortable, too well-off and too acculturated to traditional norms—like the idea that women's first priority should be home and children—to gun for top positions?

Indeed, it's hard not to consider the dynamics of privilege—white female privilege—in this discussion. But who's ready to go there?


Correction: An earlier version of this column said Paula Boggs was the first African-American partner of Preston Gates & Ellis.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com or on Twitter @lawcareerist.