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Loretta Lynch says women face ‘risk of not being seen.’ She speaks from experience.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch encourages young professional women to go beyond leaning in. (Video: The Washington Post)

As a summer associate at a North Carolina law firm, Loretta E. Lynch said she was asked to give a presentation to a client about some research she had done on his case. A partner at the firm had another young associate, a man, sit in to watch.

Lynch said her colleague had not worked on the case. But the client fired every question to him anyway.

“I would answer the question, and he would look at me, and he would say, ‘uh huh,’ and if he had another question, he would turn to the young man and ask him the question,” Lynch said. “So I think things like that make you realize that people see you in a different light.”

Now the highest-ranking prosecutor in the United States, Lynch rose to prominence despite obstacles that sometimes came in the form of gender or race — or in her case, both. She occupies one of the key positions of power in Washington as the attorney general, the first who is a black woman and only the second woman overall. Her appointment and her actions since send a strong signal that racism and sexism in the department — and in the country at large — will not be tolerated.

“This country was founded on the promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that ideal, little by little, day by day, and it may not be easy, but we will get there together,” she said at a recent news conference announcing that her department was suing North Carolina over its controversial law requiring transgender people to use restrooms corresponding with the gender on their birth certificates.

Race and gender have undeniably shaped Lynch’s life. Although she was the top student in her senior class, high school administrators decided she should share the honor with two others, including a white student, to avoid the controversy of having a lone black valedictorian. In law school and in meetings early in her career, she said professors or supervisors would sometimes dismiss her proposals, only to laud the same concepts when they were offered by a man.

“I think sometimes women face the very real risk of not being seen, and not being heard, and so that’s why I always tell young women, make yourself seen, and make yourself heard — this is your idea, this is your thought. Own it, express it, be the voice that people hear,” Lynch said.

She has faced a number of controversies since taking the helm at the Justice Department — most recently her decision to meet with Bill Clinton at the end of June on her plane in Phoenix while the department was investigating his wife, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, over the private email server she used while serving as secretary of state. She has called the police shootings of African Americans around the country and the social unrest that has followed a moment similar to the civil rights movement.

She said she wasn’t aware of a stronger backlash against her from those controversies because she is a black woman.

“People tend not to say those things to the attorney general, which is probably a wise choice on their part,” she said.

For the two women battling North Carolina law, prejudice is a personal issue

Lynch agreed to sit for a 30-minute interview for The Washington Post’s project on “Women in Power,” answering questions about how gender has affected her life and career. She said she was attracted to her first job in government, prosecuting cases for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, in part because of the number of women in management roles there. When she is looking to fill a position at the Justice Department, she said she ensures women are in the pool of candidates from which she is drawing.

Several women are in high-profile leadership roles throughout the department — including Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, criminal division head Leslie Caldwell and civil rights head Vanita Gupta — though Lynch notes they were appointed before she formally came to lead the department. Six women also work as close advisers to the attorney general herself — Sharon Werner, Lynch’s chief of staff, two deputy chiefs of staff and three other counselors.

Lynch said there remains a “significant difference in private practice and government,” when it comes to how many lawyers work at the Justice Department and for law firms.

“When you’re looking at the traditional path of law firm advancement, women still face that glass ceiling,” she said.

Lynch said the nonstop demands that come with government work sometimes erase the barriers that women and minorities face in private work, though she noted clients are beginning to demand diverse legal teams. Lynch herself was a partner at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) from 2002 to 2010.

“When I went to the Eastern District of New York, there was so much work to do, that everyone got thrown in, and everyone got pushed along,” Lynch said. “So, when you’re in that situation, I think you see women and minorities in general overall doing well and doing much better because there’s just so much work to do that you can’t afford to sort of have these sort of traditional notions that, ‘I better get someone from this school or that school’ or ‘I better get someone who sort of reminds me of me.'”

“It’s, ‘I need someone to do this case, and you’re up,'” she said.

Data from the 2014 American Community Survey show that women represented about 41 percent of both the private and federal workforces, excluding the military, which is predominantly male. Women composed about 25 percent of top executives in the private sector, compared with about 32 percent in the federal government.

The pay gap between men and women also is less in the federal government than in the private sector, especially at the top executive level. Top male executives in the federal government, for example, earned a median salary of $98,000, compared with females’ $93,000. In the private sector, top male executives earned a median salary of $100,000, compared with females’ $67,000.

Lynch speaks more frequently in public about racial issues than gender ones, particularly in the context of law enforcement’s relationship with the communities they police.

She has gone on a cross-country tour to talk with police leaders about ways to mend relationships with black residents, and — in the wake of attacks against police and the deaths of black men at police hands — she has spoken about the need for conversation and reforms. She recently called in to an MTV and BET town hall about police’s relationship with black residents.

Lynch’s department has investigated individuals, including Daniel Pantaleo, one of the officers involved in the videotaped takedown of 43-year-old Eric Garner that resulted in Garner’s death, and entire police departments, including those in Baltimore and Chicago.

She said she speaks more frequently about race because “you talk about the issues that are presented by the matters in front of you,” though she noted she has also pushed for vigorous prosecution of human trafficking cases, which mostly affect women.

She said, while problems still exist, the United States is far less segregated than it once was, and people have become “more comfortable with race as a topic.” Having a black president, and “seeing some of the negative reactions just to that fact alone” has also led to more talk of race, she said.

In the early ’80s, Lynch worked at a North Carolina law firm, Moore & Van Allen, where the client directed questions to a male colleague. She said she recalls the colleague being “confused,” and the partner being supportive of her — at one point even admonishing the client, “You know, you got to look at her, because she’s the one who knows the answer to the question.”

Lynch said she recalled thinking, “This is what people have talked about, from time to time, is you’re sitting there in the room and people just don’t see you.”

It’s not so much a problem for her now.

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Read more:

Loretta Lynch’s path from N.C. to Brooklyn to the Attorney General’s Office.

Race creeps into debate over stalled nomination for attorney general

How Loretta Lynch has investigated the police and not made them all hate her