“When All Efforts Fail to Retain Them, Unintentional Biases May Be at Work”

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That’s the title of a recent article in the New York Law Journal by Ellen Ostrow. Below is an excerpt:

… I strongly suspect that cultural assumptions – normative in law firms and in the larger social structure in which they are embedded – and the self-fulfilling prophecies to which they lead, play a significant role in many failed efforts to retain diverse attorneys.

In particular, unintentional biases may lead many women and attorneys of color to leave their firms. Psychological research indicates that unintentional biases arise from the normal human tendencies to categorize things and people into groups, to prefer familiar things and similar people and to cognitively simplify our complex world. These mental processes evolved no doubt due to their survival value (e.g., it’s essential to differentiate dangerous enemies from our kin.)

When we engage in social categorization we accentuate the differences between groups. We also attribute greater differentiation between the individuals in the groups to which we belong than to out-groups. We tend to homogenize the behavior of groups with which we do not identify; we underestimate differences within these groups.

As a psychologist who consults with law firms and lawyers, I encounter this routinely. Although all psychologists are not assumed to look alike, I am told that we think and act alike (for example, too “touchy feely”) while at the same time being reminded of the distinctiveness of individual attorneys and their firms.

It is also the case that we favor our own groups and their members while disparaging or discriminating against groups to which we do not belong. For example, we are likely to see them as less able than in-group members, to recall their errors while easily remembering the successes of similar others, to be less generous and at times to behave more aggressively toward them.

Relying on stereotypes, like categories, is a strategy to make the world simpler and therefore easier to negotiate. Stereotypes are mental shortcuts or heuristics – beliefs we have about the attributes typical of particular groups.

Research has demonstrated that our beliefs about what makes a “good lawyer” are the same traits attributed to men: individualistic, tough, independent, etc. Women, on the other hand, are assumed to be nurturing, dependent and caring – not your image of the powerful leader you want running your firm. And, as the current political scene so clearly demonstrates, we don’t like women who don’t fit the stereotype of how women are “supposed to be.”   …

Via the excellent Women Lawyers–Back on Track.

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