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Belief in Bias Can Block Your Success

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

The professor from Ontario, Canada, discussed his research at an annual meeting event sponsored by the ABA’s Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline. During “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.

Spencer described a lab study involving graduate-level advanced math tests. 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 rates of bar exam passage. 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.

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

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

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