Monday, November 13, 2017
Recently, I have worked with a number of professional services firms committed to equality, diversity and inclusion. Many offer diversity training and leadership development programs, and many support affinity groups for traditionally underrepresented groups.
However, none has been able to crack what sometimes feels like a code set in stone: significantly increased diversity at the entry level, but very little change at the top.
This divide is particularly salient in law firms. At many law schools, more women than men graduate, leading to an increase in the proportion of female lawyers in the United States from about 3 percent in 1970 to almost 40 percent today. Similarly, about one-third of law school graduates are minorities, but fewer than 10 percent of equity partners are nonwhite and fewer than 20 percent are female. These numbers have been fairly stable for a while and have even backtracked in some instances.
However, there is reason for optimism. As a behavioral economist, I look for data, as it typically tells the tale. Instead of throwing money at the problem, we need to understand what is broken before we try to fix anything. For example, when looking at promotion data, the picture is clear: There is a promotion gap between white men and traditionally disadvantaged groups.
This may be the result of flawed promotion procedures at some firms where committees spend time guessing a candidate’s potential. These appraisals are fertile ground for biases, since people tend to predict the future by extrapolating from the past — and the past looks rather white and rather male.
What are the ways in which we can combat these biases in performance appraisals and narrow the promotion gap? One study we have underway at Harvard looks at whether potential bias will go away when we use data analytics to offer more concrete and more objectively measurable criteria for such traits as analytical skills, emotional intelligence, people skills or client interaction. Generally, the arsenal of evidence-based insights that help address flaws in the promotion process is steadily increasing. Still, fixing the process alone won’t be enough.
We will also need to tackle something called the “thin file,” a term I came across only recently. When explaining to me why a person was not promoted to partner, promotion committee members repeatedly said that a candidate simply didn’t have what it takes, based on a file summarizing his or her work over the past eight years.
The candidate had not been on enough, if any, important deals, and, making matters worse, had received little feedback over the years. Associates with these “thin files” tended to be minorities and women.
Although the promotion process might have some flaws, the flaws of the system had affected these candidates from the time they joined the firm as first-year associates. They were victims of what has become known as performance-support bias, in which some employees receive less support from the start.