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If You Think You Won’t Succeed, You Probably Won’t, Panelists Say

Posted Aug 2, 2012 1:56 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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If someone thinks they won’t succeed, partly because of stereotypes, that notion will harm performance, says Steven Spencer, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, whose work focuses on motivation and the self.

The Ontario, Canada, professor discussed his research at an event Thursday sponsored by the ABA’s Council for Racial & Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline. Titled “Beyond Diversity: How Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias Contribute to the Status Gap,” Spencer and a panel of lawyers discussed what role preconceived notions play in the legal profession. The panel was moderated by R. Alexander Acosta, dean of the Florida International University College of Law.

A lab study, involving graduate-level advanced math tests, was mentioned by the Canadian professor. One group of students was told that men did better than women on the test. The other group was told there were no score differences based on gender. Men scored higher in the group that was told women did not do as well. With the latter group, Spencer said, women and men did equally well. The findings were published in the 1999 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (PDF).

Rodney Fong, the assistant dean of bar exam services at San Francisco’s Golden Gate University School of Law, had a real-world experience to share that supports the study's findings. In 2005, he told the audience, the school was put on ABA probation because of low bar exam pass rates. After speaking with students, he determined that because the school did not have a good reputation, particularly compared to other northern California law schools, they often did not expect they would pass the bar on their first try.

Also, he spoke with students about their social identities, and peer groups.

“I tried to counter all the negative identities, and switch them to one that was more positive. If someone was at the top of their class, I emphasized that. If someone had a lot of common sense, I emphasized that,” Fong says.

When he started, Golden Gate’s bar passage rate was 32 percent. Four years later, Fong said, it reached 77 percent.

One day, a Latina student told Fong that she wasn’t nervous about taking the California Bar Exam, because all Latinas at Golden Gate did well on the state bar.

“I said ‘Yes, you’re right, and you should go tell all your peers that,’ ” he said.

The issue is not limited to law students and young lawyers, Paulette Brown, a partner and chief diversity officer at Edwards Wildman Palmer, told the audience. More senior attorneys are also responsible, particularly if their stereotypes keep others from success.

A Madison, N.J., lawyer who handles employment matters, Brown noted that stereotypes are not limited to women and people of color. They’re also harmful to lawyers who come from different economic backgrounds, or are physically challenged.

“We have to recognize that all of us have biases,” Brown said. “We have to think about the impact of implicit bias. If there weren't already stereotypes made by others, then these groups of people would not have these stereotypes affecting them.”

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