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Women in the Law

Study Finds Disconnect Between Numbers and Narratives in Associate Job Reviews—But Only for Women

Posted Oct 26, 2011 5:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Women lawyers who wonder why they didn’t make partner, despite glowing narratives in their performance reviews, may find some clues in a recent study.

Law professor Joan Williams of the University of California at Hastings joined with two other researchers to analyze performance evaluations of 234 junior lawyers at an unnamed Wall Street law firm. Their study found that the narrative comments either favored the women being rated, or treated them no less favorably than men. But in the numerical ratings that mattered for promotion, men did better.

Researchers doubted that the positive narratives for women were designed to soften the blow because the junior lawyers did not have direct access to the comments, according to the study (PDF) published this summer in Social Psychological and Personality Science. “Instead, we suggest that gender stereotypes led to pro-male bias on the evaluative judgments that mattered,” the study says. Yahoo News has an ANI story on the findings.

Fourteen percent of the men and about 5 percent of the women received numerical evaluations higher than a 4.5 on a 1-to-5 scale. According to firm lore, high ratings of mostly 5s are a prerequisite for partnership.

The researchers analyzed the narrative evaluations using text analysis software and trained independent coders who looked at the comments with references to gender removed. When researchers compared the narrative and numerical evaluations, there was much greater consistency for men than women. Researchers found some other sex differences:

• Men who were praised for high technical competence tended to receive better numerical ratings than women who received the same degree of praise.

• Women criticized for low interpersonal warmth tended to receive lower numerical ratings than men who were criticized for the same problem.

Williams tells the ABA Journal in an email that she suspects other law firms also have evaluation systems that need review. "This study suggests that one reason law firms can’t keep women is that firms’ evaluation systems are not correcting for implicit biases that disadvantage women," she says. "Law firms need to adopt best practices, including having someone trained to spot gender bias reviewing all evaluations before they become final."

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