You're a Lawyer? The Real Lives of Black Women in Law Firms

September 9, 2019

What is holding black women back in law and other professions? Tsedale Melaku (Ph.D. '16, Sociology) examines in her first book.


Tsedale Melaku (Ph.D.' 16, Sociology), author of You Don't Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism
Although the optics have continued to shift over the years, certain professions still exude a general idea about who does and doesn’t belong. Tsedale Melaku (Ph.D. ’16, Sociology), who is now a postdoctoral researcher at The Graduate Center’s Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Carribean (IRADAC), found it especially prevalent in law firms.
Melaku’s new book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, which grew out of her dissertation, examines the challenges black female associates face as a result of institutional practices that marginalize them based on race and gender. While black men share a gendered commonality with their white male counterparts, and white women share a racialized commonality, Melaku says, “Black women are excluded from that.”
Melaku interviewed 20 black female associates about their respective experiences, and the book’s resulting chapters explore everything from pervasive ideas about affirmative action to how a lack of mentorship and sponsorship impact advancement. She also focuses on how black female associates tend to be judged on looks and competence more than other associates. “You’re hypervisible when you make a mistake, and invisible when you do well,” Melaku says.
Still, she was surprised by the difficulty associates had discussing their experiences in terms of race. “What was really eye-opening is how they had a hard time talking about race because people will just assume they’re playing the race card,” she says. “Minimizing the impact of racism on their experiences in significant.” 
All scholars are invested in their research to some degree, but Melaku’s went beyond mere curiosity. Before pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, she considered becoming a lawyer. “A friend convinced me to work at a law firm for a year just to get a sense,” she says. “After about six months I said, ‘No, I’m not going to law school. This is not the life for me.’” But she continued working full-time at a law firm when she shifted her attention to academia, and a friend encouraged her to combine that experience with her interest in race, gender, and sexuality. “I was always talking about the firm and what I saw,” she says. “It was my life. I never thought to marry the two, but I turned my gaze to the firm and I couldn’t stop.” 
Though Melaku had a great deal of support for her work, the final months of her dissertation became especially fraught when her committee chair Jerry G. Watts suddenly passed away. “I had a really wonderful relationship with him — he was The Graduate Center for me — so it was very difficult,” she says. “But I was very lucky to have Erica Chito-Childs, who stepped in from the very beginning and really motivated me and pushed me through.” After successfully defending, Melaku lacked the emotional energy to go full force into the job market, but Chito-Childs didn’t want her to take a gap year, so she spent the year teaching at Hunter, working on her book proposal, and caring for her newborn, who was her second son.

Luckily, just as interest in her book turned into a full-fledged contract, Melaku received a postdoctoral fellowship from IRADAC, which allowed her to finish the book. “It’s really amazing because [the fellowship] focuses on junior scholars, so I was able to concentrate on writing,” she says. “I don’t know how anyone does it without this, quite honestly. I just felt so lucky.” But she didn’t do it alone — Melaku’s partner, mother, and one of her friends stepped in to help out, watching her sons, so that she could finish her revised manuscript and make the publishers’ tight eight-month deadline. “I was staying at the GC until 11 or midnight for the last two months [of writing],” she says.
Melaku was originally contracted to do a monograph — a more limiting academic work — but she was eager to broaden the conversation, so she pushed to make the book general interest.
“We’re talking about it, but we’re not talking about it in a way that creates substantive changes,” she says, noting how women’s narratives align across industries. “‘You don’t look like a lawyer’ could be ‘You don't look like a professor’ or ‘You don’t look like a doctor,’” she says. “People can relate to that.”