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Women Get Shafted on Reviews

Vivia Chen

October 31, 2011

WomengradeIt's the annoying issue that just won't go away: Why do women still lag behind men in law firms after all these years?

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

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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Great article. In the same way that I would prove a Civil Rights case I would prove discrimination in law firms. Partners who evaluate those unlike themselves hold others to a higher standard. The standard is what the partner himself is capable of on his best day. When it is someone from their own background, they forgive mistakes and make excuses. The standard then is what the partner would have done as a young associate and what he would want to be forgiven for. It is true that women and minorities have to perform at a higher standard than their white male counterparts. If you check Martindale Hubbel ratings for early participants, you will find women and blacks getting many more B ratings than white males. We called it the "B for Bitch" rating for women litigators. This has been explained to me as follows: when a man makes a mistake, men say "everyone makes a mistake now and then." When a woman or a minority makes a mistake or uses a condescending attitude towards a man: "never use that woman again." EVER. When it came to compensation committees, I was told that I did not get the automatic raise like the men did because they were "raising a family" or "just starting out and should not be penalized." The "penalty" he was talking about was the fact that the men were entitled to be paid more than me. My hours and my reviews were higher as well as my billings from my own clients. I was also the only partner (out of 45) who had to pay small fines for making mistakes and turning in late timesheets. The male partners who were late were "excused." On my evaluations in the years before I made partner I received the following remarks: "lacks commitment to the practice of law (for having babies and taking maternity leave)." "Lacks judgment." No examples were given. These areas brought down my overall scores.

I don't think the bias is entirely unconscious. The other comments about being criticized for standing up for oneself definitely resonate. I'm sure there's an even more pronounced bias against black women lawyers.

I'd also point out something quite questionable about the study. The study purposely only studied white and Asians at the firm. No explanation for this is given. I suspect that the same type of feelings that cause white male supervisors to provide over-glowing comments about younger white women does not extend to younger black women since white guys don't find black women as attractive.

The study authors, a female and someone using initials as their first name and therefore likely another female, probably didn't like the way the study turned out when people of all races were considered. Of course, people of all races SHOULD have been considered.

To avoid lawsuits, reviewers made nice comments about (inevitably) inferior female attorneys. One of the strongest dynamics in all of humankind is that older guys have a kind and protective attitude toward younger women.

Its the narratives that were overstated in favor of the women, not that the women were cheated out of numerical points.

I often had the impression that men were much more inclined to fight for a higher rating in reviews. It may just be anecdotal, but I frequently found myself annoyed upfront already, knowing they'd want a better score. I bet that some managers would give in and hand out higher numerical values to men right away, just to avoid the hassle of having to argue. The written assessment would simply remain the same. I guess it might not even happen deliberately, but subconsciously. Unfair nonetheless, and something every manager should be considering while writing their reviews and assessments.

Having been a practicing attorney for the past 27 years, and having worked in various firms, I'm not at all surprised by the study -- it confirms my personal experience. So, I have just started my own practice with my husband, which I think will be the perfect solution.

It's not just law....I've gotten the "aggressive and arrogant" label in government relations and downgraded on evals for it.

I was an Army JAG on active duty back in the 1980's and women were only about 10% of the force in those days. "They" always advised boards considering folks for promotion that women and minorities tended to get rated lower that white men and the board should take that into account when scoring the files. I am so not surprised big firm law hasn't figured that out they hate women. I was there too I ought to know.

I agree with the author's observations and readers' comments, based on my 22 years of experience in law. So now that there is no shortage of well-trained, well-connected, and affluent women lawyers - why wait for men to promote you? Start your own firm!

Excellent post. This is the hidden discrimination that needs to be taken seriously and addressed by the firms. The evaluators (i.e., senior attorneys) need to be educated - they too often transmit their social biases into an evaluation and would be stunned to hear that they are using different standards and language for the women.

My boss called me aggressive because he said I stand up for myself and that its a personality flaw.

My experience has been that men appear to have an "instant credibility" -- they are deemed competent until they demonstrate that they are not, whereas women are assumed incompetent until they prove that they are. Unfortunately, I have found that women are simply not given the same opportunities to prove themselves that men are. At my current boutique firm, the majority shareholder refuses to travel with female associates, hence we are not introduced to clients like the male associates are.

Geez, who do you think writes those reviews? Blind performance reviews are at best uninformative and at worst are invitations to a consequence-free cheap-shot. That firms rely on them (and maybe even believe what they say) them would, like so much about law firm management, be funny if it weren't so stupid. I guaranty that if reviews were signed and published they would be far fairer.

This is,hopefully, our last frontier. We now have the opportununity to work, but we need the same support that men get so we can also succeed at work while having balanced lives. If men have historically been able to succed while having family lives, playing golf, and having affairs, women should be able to thrive as well without needing to work any harder than men always have. They just need to be treated fairly now for their true contributions.

Great article Vivia - unfortunately, no suprises there! :o)

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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