Pushback to DEI and the Impact on Women in the Legal Profession


Diversity & Inclusion Alumni Diversity and Inclusion Events Gender Initiatives
A photograph of panel moderator Anika Gray, Director of Northwestern Pritzker Law's Gender Equity Initiative, with panelists Kristen Jones (JD '09), Karin Lee (JD '14), and Michelle Speller-Thurman (JD '99).
Panel moderator Anika Gray, Director of Northwestern Pritzker Law’s Gender Equity Initiative, with panelists Kristen Jones (JD ’09), Karin Lee (JD ’14), and Michelle Speller-Thurman (JD ’99).

On March 27, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Gender Equity Initiative (GEI) and Alumni Relations and Development, in partnership with the Women of Color Collective Alumni Affinity Group, Women’s Leadership Coalition Alumni Affinity Group, and Chicago Alumni Chapter, hosted “Pushback to DEI and the Impact on Women in the Legal Profession.” The event was held at River Roast on the Chicago Riverwalk and was attended by alumni, students, and other Northwestern community members.

Panelists Kristen Jones (JD ’09), Director of Legal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Senior Counsel for McDonald’s Corporation; Karin Lee (JD ’14), Senior Vice President & Senior Legal Counsel at Northern Trust; and Michelle Speller-Thurman (JD ’99), Vice President, Legal Head, Mergers & Acquisitions, Licensing and Corporate Securities at Organon joined Anika Gray, Director of Northwestern Pritzker Law’s Gender Equity Initiative for a discussion on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, rising pushback, and the impact of both on women—particularly women of color—in the legal profession as well as the workplace in general.

Gray began the discussion by asking panelists to define the true purpose of corporate and law firm DEI programs and what they hope to accomplish. Kristen Jones made a point of distinguishing DEI programs from simple venues through which to increase diversity: “it is not affirmative action…but [it is] about creating an inclusive workplace and increasing access to opportunity for everyone.” DEI programs are meant to examine how a company’s policies and processes impact certain groups and are important for measuring trends and demographic data, which is the key to driving data-informed strategies that embed inclusive practices throughout a company’s operations. Michelle Speller-Thurman noted DEI programs often promote an organization’s underlying values and they can be necessary to ensuring organizations act on those values.

Although many companies had DEI programs predating 2020, George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests markedly increased focus on DEI, as an unprecedented number of companies committed to embedding racial equity. The number of DEI offices increased around the country, and those that already existed were “reinvigorated,” according to Jones. However, increased visibility of DEI initiatives also led to greater pushback. In 2023, a number of legal challenges to DEI were initiated in state legislatures[1] as well as in the courts, and although many of these lawsuits have been dismissed, several other suits are still pending. Karin Lee pointed out that these lawsuits have ongoing consequences for the companies that are targeted, many of have either dropped, reduced, or reframed their DEI goals and programs.

The conversation then shifted to the impact of DEI programs on women in the workplace, particularly in law firms. Studies show that in the past few years, the push for DEI has had a positive impact on women overall. However, a further breakdown of statistics reveals that the primary beneficiaries have been white women, while relatively little has changed in terms of leadership opportunities and lived experiences for women of color.  Speller-Thurman pointed to a failure to acknowledge intersectionality as a primary factor: “women of color are often invisible…female colleagues may not see race; their male counterparts may not see gender.” Lee agreed that a great many challenges remain for women of color, and emphasized the importance of measuring DEI’s impact at all levels of leadership: “Who is being impacted? Measuring the number of women who make partner is a frequently cited metric, but what about equity partners? Leadership positions?”

When asked how companies are responding to current critiques, panelists spoke of the importance of remaining prepared for continued legal challenges. Many companies now audit their programs, said Jones, evaluating potential risks and potentially pivoting based on findings. Companies need to ask themselves what is their risk tolerance for brand or legal impact in the current climate of backlash, when balanced with the importance of continuing to do this work in line with company values.  Despite the challenges many leaders remain committed to increasing DEI efforts, a finding more common in organizations where DEI was already embedded prior to 2020. Speller-Thurman also emphasized remaining vigilant about the legal landscape and ongoing challenges to DEI initiatives.

During the question-and-answer session, panelists provided wisdom to a current law student who asked about navigating the legal world as a woman of color and first-generation lawyer. Speller-Thurman advised finding people who can “speak up for you,” while Jones recommended making connections with partners by finding commonalities beyond race and gender, such as sports or hobbies. Jones also reminded the audience to be aware that bias exists bothwithin ourselves and within others, and to consider what each person can do to disrupt bias on every level. Finally, Lee encouraged students and alumni to take advantage of the Northwestern Pritzker Law network, which can be an especially crucial resource for those from diverse backgrounds.

Gray concluded the panel with a powerful reminder that DEI programs are alive, active, and not going anywhere, but they must evolve to survive the current climate of pushback and do better in creating access to opportunities.

The Gender Equity Initiative (GEI) was created in 2018 to address the unique challenges female lawyers face, including underrepresentation in big law leadership roles, compensation inequity, and the motherhood or caregiver penalty. Studies have shown that women of color face even more obstacles. The GEI’s goal is to make Northwestern Pritzker School of Law a leader in contributing to gender equity in the legal profession and the practice of law. The initiative is guided by three pillars: “providing professional development programs for students and alumni from diverse backgrounds to achieve satisfying careers and leadership positions in their chosen fields; creating spaces to address gender equity issues in the law and to share solutions; and providing outreach into the community to tackle issues that disproportionately affect girls, women, gender minorities, and men from disadvantaged groups.”

[1] Washington Post article