Saturday, February 18, 2006
Law firms that have greater proportions of male partners and that value stereotypically male characteristics may be less likely to hire and promote female candidates, according to U.Va. sociology professor Elizabeth Gorman, who spoke at a talk sponsored by Virginia Law Women Feb. 15.
According to November 2005 data provided by the National Association for Law Placement, women comprise approximately 48 percent of law students, almost 48 percent of summer associates, and about 44 percent of associates, but only 17 percent of partners. In analyzing this discrepancy, Gorman said she wanted to evaluate the allocation of opportunities, including getting hired, receiving work assignments as an associate, and making partner.
Gorman identified three processes “that can tend to produce an advantage for men in obtaining opportunities.” The first process is based on individual lawyers’ decisions and self-selection, rather than firm-based choices. “In other words, one reason that women might not be hired as often as men, might not get the same assignments or as good assignments as men, might not be promoted to partner at the same rate as men is that the[ women] themselves are opting not to seek those opportunities.”
Second, men may actually be better lawyers. However, there is little evidence that men have stronger skills or abilities out of school. “In fact if anything, it looks the other way—in recent years women have had higher law school grades on average than men,” she said.
The third process involves partners’ cognitive biases in perceiving and evaluating associates. According to Gorman, psychologists have identified two relevant types of biases: in-group preference and schema-based thinking. In-group thinking is an us-versus-them mentality based on characteristics including gender, race, nationality, and more. Laboratory work has found that people tend to feel more comfortable with members of their in-group, finding them more trustworthy and cooperative. “If we apply that then to the law-firm context, all that suggests that partners who are men may tend to show some favoritism towards male associates,” Gorman said. “It may not be conscious, it may not be deliberate at all, it may be just at automatic feeling of being more comfortable with them, and this might be especially true if whatever opportunity is being allocated involves working together.”