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ICLS celebrates female leadership, acknowledges barriers ahead of International Women’s Day

In the legal field, gender disparity has long been an issue. Women have fought for opportunities, advocated for change on a systemic level, and achieved great successes as judges, law firm partners, and so much more — but still, there is work to be done. 

This Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, ICLS’s women in senior leadership reflected on their own journeys in the profession, the role female mentors played in their careers, and how they’re paving the road for the next generation of female attorneys and leaders. 

For ICLS Executive Director Tessie Solorzano, female mentors served as a source of inspiration and support in a predominately white, male profession. Still, 58% of attorneys in California are men, and 42% are white men, according to California State Bar Data. 

“For all the future leaders – representation matters. For our clients, representation matters,” Solorzano said. “There’s a lot to be said about seeing yourself represented in leadership at all levels and making space for the next generation to feel empowered and confident in making strides towards leadership.” 

Not only does that have an impact on ICLS staff, but it can also impact clients, as Solorzano mentioned. As a nonprofit serving low-income residents, people with disabilities, veterans, and seniors, having diverse leadership at all levels can make clients feel more comfortable and empowered to tackle their issues head on.  

And while women and people of color are more heavily represented in nonprofits, there are still gaps in diversity in leadership. Men and women of color make up 42% of the state’s nonprofit attorneys, but they only make up 35% of nonprofit executives.

“Representation is critical, especially to those like me who don’t come from backgrounds and families where we have personal examples of family members or loved ones graduating from college or pursuing higher education,” ICLS Deputy Director of Litigation Marsha Johnson said. “Seeing examples of women in leadership, and for me personally, Black women in leadership positions, is motivating and reminds me that I can achieve those types of positions, as well.” 

Johnson continued, “It’s also important to fuel growth and diversity in a workplace, because the more voices we have and the more we highlight the value in varied experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives, the more representative we are of the community we serve and the greater the impact we can make.”

With leaders like Solorzano and Johnson at the helm, ICLS continues pushing for progress and growth on diversity and representation initiatives. Johnson has started a new mentorship program at ICLS to connect newer attorneys and legal staff and give them the tools for career advancement. Solorzano has proudly supported Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Initiatives, including gathering data on how ICLS staff reflects community demographics, hosting trainings on belonging for staff of color, and welcoming honest feedback from staff on promotions. 

While the legal field and the organization still have work to do, currently 75% of ICLS’s senior leadership is female and 50% women of color. Their hope is to inspire others to dream even bigger. 

“I hope that my leadership inspires others to take risks, push for change in systems of oppression, and encourage and support others on their personal and professional journey,” Solorzano said. “I also hope that my leadership inspires others to embrace who they are and be true to themselves in their work and efforts. Lastly, I hope that I encourage and inspire others to allow themselves to rest and appreciate their hard work.”