Implicit Bias and Its Effect on Women Rising through Legal Ranks – Insights from Women Leaders Forum

In March, I attended the Women Leaders Forum in Denver, an event assembled by Kim Stuart of Key Group and David Ackert of Ackert Advisory to support the advancement of women leaders in the legal industry. Keynote speaker Hilarie Bass, President of the American Bar Association (ABA) and Co-President of Greenburg Traurig LLP, kicked off the event with a candid talk about the issues women face in the workplace. I’ve recapped her discussion below.

As of 2018, there are more women in law school than men; however, ABA research found that by age 50, 25% of women will have permanently left the profession, whether because of family or because they think the profession is not accommodating to women.

Here are some of the reasons women feel the legal industry has been challenging:

  • Managing two jobs: No matter how much the world has evolved in recent decades, women still feel they have two jobs: taking care of the household and their fulltime job as a lawyer. This tends to wear out women much faster.
  • Success fatigue: Women have felt that they have to “do it better” than their male counterparts to get the recognition they warrant, for example, graduating at the top of their law school and being the top biller at their firm. As Ginger Rogers famously said, she had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels!
  • Empathy index: Many women feel that they are judged differently for the same tasks that men do. For example, if a man tells the office that he’s leaving early to take his child to soccer, everybody thinks he’s an awesome father and a family man; but if a woman does the exact same thing, she’s made to feel that she’s not dedicated to her work.
  • Inherit implicit bias: No matter how objective men feel they are, they are not. And this issue is not one-sided. People tend to judge people subjectively – it is a fact of life.

One fascinating theme that the ABA discovered was the subtle difference in men and women’s letters of recommendations. For example, men were described as naturally brilliant, whereas women were described as hardworking and dedicated.

Another example of implicit bias discussed was a class action lawsuit filed against an orchestra claiming that women weren’t being hired. This was evidenced by the fact that less than 5% of women who auditioned were accepted. In a test designed to eliminate the perceived bias, screens were put up so that the people auditioning couldn’t be seen. From these auditions, the number of women accepted to the orchestra doubled. The test designers noticed, however, that there was still the opportunity for bias because the evaluators could hear the clicking of heels on the floor, so they then carpeted the auditions. After that test, more than 30% of the orchestra was made up of women. This demonstrates that no matter how much you think you’re being objective, you really may not be.

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