You know the usual litany of reasons: work/life balance difficulties, lack of mentoring, etc. But have you considered this explanation? Women aren't getting the partnership prize because their firms are grading them harder.
In a fascinating study (PDF) in Social Psychological and Personality Science, authors Monica Biernat, M.J. Tocci, and Joan Williams looked at the performance reviews of 234 associates at an anonymous Wall Street law firm. Their finding: Men outscored women in numerical ratings, though women often got glowing comments on the narrative portion of the reviews.
In fact, words such as "excellent," "awesome," and "stellar" appeared more frequently on reviews about women, though that didn't usually result in higher numerical scores. But for men who got similar praise, there was a correlation between the narrative review and their scores.
Why should anyone care? Well, the numerical scores have a great impact on partnership. "The firm's reliance on numbers for partnership consideration made it three times more likely that men will be promoted to partner," says the report.
Here's a summary of some of the findings:
1. Male supervisors gave higher numerical ratings to male associates than female ones.
2. A higher percentage of men (14 percent) than women (4.76 percent) got evaluations in the top category (equal or greater than a 4.5 on a 5.0 scale).
2. Technical competence mattered more for men than women.
3. Interpersonal warmth mattered more for women than men.
So what does this all mean? "Women are expected to be well-socialized and be attuned to other people's needs," says Joan Williams, one of the authors and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings. "They are expected to do nice work, but they are not assumed to be rainmakers."
But "if a man has social social skills, he's regarded as a real find. . . . If the [evaluation] comment is that he's 'good with clients,' it results in an immediate 5," says Williams. "But if the comment is 'clients love her,' the lawyer only got a 4."
So a woman is damned if she's all business, and damned if she's warm and cuddly.
Setting the bar higher for women is not conscious, explains Williams. Nonetheless, the effect is that "women have to prove themselves over and over again. That means women literally have to work harder—which is why so many women drop out."
Does this strike a chord where you work? Do women have more to prove? And do you think the review process at your firm or company is this slanted?
For postscript on this post, see "We'd Rather Not Change."
Hat tip: ABA Blog
Get The Careerist in your morning e-mail. Sign up today--see box on upper right corner.
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.