Six Ways Organizations Can Remove Structural Barriers to Enable Women’s Advancement

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


NEW YORK — Barriers to advancement for women in the legal profession are a tangible and serious problem for the industry as well as for individual organizations — law firms, corporate legal departments and other institutions — that may not see their best qualified leaders rise in the ranks as a result.

Last week, the Legal Executive Institute hosted its 2nd Annual Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum in New York, and these barriers and how best to overcome them were a major topic of discussion.

Here are the top six immediate actions, discussed and shared throughout the Forum, which organizations can take to remove these structural barriers for women to advance in the law:

1. For corporate legal departments, host a program for your preferred outside counsel partners to set the stage for your requirements around diversity and inclusion and on how unconscious bias shows up in decision-making. Indeed, 90% of thought-processes are unconscious, according to research by Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji. As clients of large firms, corporate legal departments have a significant opportunity to impact the advancement of women in the legal profession.

2. Focus the examination of unconscious bias on key moments in a lawyer’s career advancement — job interviews, performance reviews and talent reviews.

  • For job interviews, be aware of the following potential pitfalls:
    • the Mini-Me syndrome: People are attracted to others who are similar to themselves because it is assumed that they will think and behave like ourselves; and
    • “Time Blind” closure bias: At some point, everyone wants closure. Time pressures can force an even earlier closure. Closure bias causes us to make judgments prematurely
  • Performance reviews:
    • Setting an impression: When exposed to one idea of a person or situation, we tend to use the idea to make subsequent associations about people and situations; and
    • Validates my view confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s biases.
  • Talent reviews:
    • Pigeon-holing prototype bias: Attaching generalized assumptions about particular social groups to individuals who are assumed to belong to those groups; and
    • Making assumptions/attribution bias: People tend to make inferences about behaviors of others as opposed to relying on evidence. Attributions are prone to errors.

3. Remind your managers of these tips during:

  • Performance assessments & conversations:
    • Be at your best — Provide every employee with your “best self” when you meet;
    • Check yourself: Ask yourself, “Am I unfairly rewarding certain behaviors?”
    • Test yourself: How would you explain your definitions and evaluations criteria of a top performer, a middle performer and an underperformer?
  • Hiring Employees:
    • Remind yourself: When screening candidates, write down why diversity and fairness are important to you and your organization;
    • Be cautious: Watch out for personal rapport that can “oversell” a candidate; and
    • Consider what “fit” means: Establish criteria for assessing candidates. Avoid using “fit” as a catch-all term that can over-generalize.

4. Have your leadership take the Harvard Implicit Bias tests and discuss the results.

5. Develop men as allies — ask your male leaders to not commit to speak on a panel without a female.

6. Offer paternity and maternity leave and give colleagues a part-time schedule with full-time pay for six months after the birth of a child.

While working toward removing these barriers to advancement for women in the legal profession is a formidable task for any organization, it is not impossible to achieve. And the potential dividends — from both clients who are insisting on diversity in their legal hires to the increasing number of quality leaders that will be found within the ranks — are very tangible and significant as well.