Eliminating Gender Biases in Your Legal Organization’s Performance Evaluations

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


Most leaders in the legal profession would agree with Katherine Phillips of Columbia University Business School, when she said: “[s]ocially diverse groups… are more innovative than homogeneous groups.” Yet, as McKinsey & Co. recently concluded, “Corporate America [including the legal profession] is not on a path to gender equality.”

Women are simply not present at senior levels of our law firms and corporate law departments in numbers anywhere comparable to men, and the reason is straightforward: the gatekeepers to women’s career advancement — the people who evaluate their performances — often have (unconscious) biases against women as leaders.

Meaningful progress toward gender diversity in the leadership ranks of the American legal profession, therefore, depends on eliminating gender bias from our evaluation processes. We believe there are three techniques that will help move us closer to accomplishing this: blind auditions; thinking “slow” rather than “fast”; and outsmarting “mind bugs.”

Alton Harris will lead a webinar on May 4 entitled, “What Men and Legal Organizations Can Do to End Discriminatory Biases against Women Attorneys” that will discuss many of the points made in this blog post.

 1. Blind Auditions

In the 1963-‘64 season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had three women out of its 104 musicians, and the New York Philharmonic had no women at all. By the 2014-’15 season, Chicago had 41 women, New York had 44, and the top 250 American orchestras had about 50% women. The gender composition of our orchestras changed primarily because these orchestras began conducting their auditions from behind screens, to make the audition judges “blind” to the performer’s gender.

There are, at least, three ways to apply the blind audition insight to the performance evaluation process in law firms and legal departments.

  • First, Human Resource professionals should rewrite résumés to eliminate indications of the applicants’ gender. This will assure the pool of prospective employees is filled in a gender-neutral way.
  • Second, evaluation forms that ask open-ended questions should be eliminated. Force evaluators to focus on job-related competencies, without providing an opportunity to make subjective comments about personality, potential and fit.
  • Third, projects should be assigned without regard to gender. A woman in your law firm or law department should never find herself lacking the experience to move up when a man of comparable seniority has had that experience.

2. Slow Thinking

Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman distinguishes two modes of thinking: fast and slow. Fast thinking relies on stereotypes and implicit biases — it is automatic, effortless, instinctual, and emotional. Slow thinking is hard, requiring thoughtful, careful and logical decisions. We resist slow thinking because, as Kahneman puts it, the voice of our reflective self is “much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition.” Gender bias can be largely taken out of evaluations by designing processes that encourage evaluators to think slow rather than fast. We have three suggestions for doing this.

  • First, whenever possible, use multiple evaluators (both female and male) and be sure they discuss their views before submitting their final evaluations. By exposing evaluators to differing perspectives, they are more likely to use slow thinking in making their evaluations.
  • Second, to the extent feasible, performance evaluations should be done by explicitly comparing employees. Evaluators that make comparative rather than individual evaluations typically switch from intuitive evaluations (fast thinking) to more reasoned evaluations (slow thinking).
  • Third, written evaluations should be reviewed for patterns indicating gender bias. With proper training, reviewers will see the presence of such bias in the language used, the standards applied and the expectations imposed. (“He’s assertive; she’s abrasive; He’s independent; she’s unfriendly”.) In addition, people are more likely to think slow when they know their evaluations will be reviewed in this way.

3. Outsmarting Mind Bugs

Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, the developers of the Implicit Association Tests (IAT) at Harvard’s Project Implicit, refer to implicit biases as “mind bugs” that are “dauntingly persistent.” Because of their persistence, Banaji and Greenwald believe the discriminatory effects of mind bugs can best be eliminated by outsmarting them. This insight can be applied to performance evaluations in, at least, two ways.

  • First, gender bias is a blind spot — a tendency or inclination to make unconscious discriminatory mental associations. When evaluators become aware of their blind spots, they are likely to become cautious — use slow thinking — when inclined to make those associations. Anyone who gives assignments, selects team members, submits formal evaluations or influences compensation and promotion decisions should take the IAT for Gender-Career. This will assure they know their own gender biases.
  • Second, gender bias often manifests itself as an in-group/out-group phenomenon, with “in-group members” — primarily senior men — (unconsciously) choosing to help, praise and advance people like them — primarily other men. This reflexive in-group preference disadvantages out-group members — primarily women. This sort of instinctual preference can be outsmarted by changing the conditions under which evaluations are made. For example, organizations can require evaluations to be explained to a diversity committee. They can periodically survey employees about the gender fairness of their managers. And they can monitor team composition, comparability of assignments and peer compensation parity.


The techniques we have suggested for eliminating gender bias from your legal organization’s evaluation processes should be useful, but they are not nearly as important as the insights that underlie them. By keeping an eye on these insights — blind auditions, slow thinking, and outsmarting mind bugs — you should be able to eliminate gender bias from performance evaluations in ways that are precisely tailored to your law firm’s or legal department’s unique characteristics.

The authors’ new book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work is largely devoted to providing women with advice about how they can avoid or overcome the gender biases that slow or obstruct their careers. You can also go to their website, www.AndieandAl.com, and sign up to receive future blog posts on gender, career advancement and stereotype bias.