Can You Name The Smartest Person In The Room? The Surprisingly Different Way Men & Women Answer & Law Firm Gender Bias

Time and time again, women are underestimated. Whether in the classroom or a professional office space, the same, sad statistic remains intact. Women aren’t considered equal peers and colleagues.

Let’s take a recent study conducted by anthropologist Dan Grunspan. While teaching undergraduate students, Grunspan noticed a shocking and persistent trend. His male undergraduate students assumed the other men in the class knew more about the course material than their female counterparts. What’s more, this remained true even when the female students were earning better grades.

“The pattern just screamed at me,” said Grunspan to Danielle Paquette for the Washington Post article, “The remarkably different answers men and women give when asked who’s the smartest in the class.

Determined to apply quantitative methods to his qualitative assessment, Grunspan and his colleagues at the University of Washington set up a study to measure the degree of this gender bias in the classroom.

The researchers conducted surveys of roughly 1,700 students attending three biology courses. In defense of Grunspan’s observations, the results of the study concluded that men in these courses did, in fact, consistently award each other more credit than their equally-knowledgable female classmates.

This bias amounted to three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE. This means, while two students—one male, one female—earned the same “A” grade, male students would consider the male student an “A” student, but the female student a “B” performer. Female students, however, did not possess the same bias.

“Something under the conscious is going on,” Grunspan said to the Washington Post.

“For 18 years, these [young men] have been socialized to have this bias.”

It stands to reason that if this bias is continuous and persistent among undergraduates, it didn’t just disappear in law school or at the law firm. While this conclusion relies on certain assumptions—that men don’t mature later in life or that they don’t award more credit to their female colleagues with experience, for example—it does provide fodder to think about how you might treat female colleagues in the workplace.

Stephanie Haladner, a former Clifford Chance said to the UK Telegraph, “There is an unconscious bias that is stopping women from getting promoted in law firms. We have to look at a culture change. The majority of law firms are acknowledging that they have an issue and would like to take steps to make a change.”

“When it comes to unconscious bias, it means [law firms] recruit and advance people in their own image.”

When name partners are all male—this means promoting other men. When senior associates are male, this means assigning other men to work on the most important cases.

When you need a second opinion, to whom do you go to? When considering two like-level associates, one male and one female, does your firm unconsciously reward one over the other?

“One other issue for women that constantly comes up is that women tend not to be as good at promoting themselves within an organization,” continues Haladner.

While this may be a valid explanation for why women cab be overlooked professionally, it’s no excuse for your firm to perpetuate a well-documented bias.

Go back to the numbers. Like Professor Grunspan, take a look at the pattern within your own firm. If there are fewer women at the top, it may be time to consider whether or not this is due to over-crediting men by male management.



For more law firm management and concrete HR tips, take one of The Center for Competitive Management’s webinars here.


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