For the most part, the days of explicit, overt gender bias in the legal profession are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, however, gender bias still persists, but it now tends to be couched in more subtle terms. This implicit bias is arguably even more insidious because it is difficult to recognize and combat. As we saw in the recent presidential campaign, and as discussed in Ann Farmer's cover story, "The Political Pillorying of Pantsuits: The Media's Gender Bias in the 2008 Presidential Campaign," women lawyers are not the only ones subjected to and harmed by implicit bias.
Implicit bias has a profound impact on the retention, promotion, and morale of women lawyers. Lawyers' performance evaluations are critically important to their professional development, assignments, compensation, and, ultimately, partnership prospects. Thus, steps must be taken to ensure that such evaluations are bias-free.
Because of the key role that evaluations play in the advancement of women in law firms, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession recently published a revised and expanded second edition of Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations. This widely acclaimed manual outlines a step-by-step process for creating and implementing an effective gender-neutral evaluation system. It explains hidden bias and stereotyping, discusses how such bias affects everyday workplace interactions, and demonstrates why the elimination of such bias is a business imperative. This manual also contains detailed evaluation forms, checklists, and other practical materials, plus a comprehensive review of the psychological literature on stereotyping.
If your employer or state and local bar association is interested in presenting a program on these issues, the Commission can supply you with suggested speakers and helpful training materials. Simply contact Veronica Muñoz, director of the Commission, at 312/988-5715 or Veronica.Munoz@americanbar.org.
An unfair evaluation can have a devastating effect on a woman lawyer's career, particularly in today's difficult economic environment. Law firms are coping with the economic downturn by laying off associates. The Commission is concerned that these layoffs will have a disproportionate impact on women lawyers, as firms may start to cut back on part-time and flex-time lawyers and may also base their layoff decisions on performance evaluations infected by gender bias. In this struggling economy, a woman lawyer who has received a biased evaluation is especially vulnerable. We will continue to monitor these developments to ensure that terminations attributed to "poor performance" are not the product of unfairly biased evaluations.
The subject of implicit bias also will be addressed in a Commission program during the February 2009 ABA Midyear Meeting in Boston entitled Mindbugs: The Psychology of Ordinary Prejudice. This groundbreaking and informative seminar, which will offer CLE credits, will feature renowned Harvard University Professor Mahzarin Banaji. Please join us on a fascinating journey into the human psyche and an exploration into the unconscious nature of how we perceive ourselves and others, which has important implications for all of us.
Understanding and recognizing bias in all of its manifestations are necessary first steps toward eliminating it from the workplace and ensuring equal opportunities for everyone.