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Making small changes to have big impact on gender diversity

There’s been a lot of effort among law firms and legal departments to promote gender diversity and inclusion among their ranks, as they seek to strengthen the number of women who reach top management levels. This has led to some success, but not much.

Indeed, despite near-equal entry into the legal field from both women and men for more than two decades, by the time lawyers reach the partner or especially managing partner level, the number of women lawyers has dropped off dramatically. And one of the main reasons for that is that biases continue to creep into the numerous decisions made every day about how firms manage their people.

These biases can continue to create hurdles for women by replicating previous poor decision making around gender diversity, even if the law firms are unaware of these biases or don’t understand how the biases are hampering their efforts at more diversity. In a way, these organizational biases remain a black box, and we cannot always determine the answers as to what’s inside. Even the ways that decision-making and people management are designed can lead to these biases.

One suggestion to combat this would be for firms to take a more behavioral view of how they manage people and look at the organization levers – the processes, structures and communication methods – they use to manage people. Behavior really determines performance, and firms need to view their lawyers’ behavior through a sort of “reverse triangle”: First, determine what performance they want, then examine their data to see what behaviors they are getting and finally, nudge that behavior toward their goals. But to accomplish this, you have to begin by looking at an organization holistically.

To do so, firms must have a good understanding of what can be achieved with big-data analysis and behavioral science. Much of business analytics is about gaining insights from patterns in data to inform business planning. The “behavioral science” movement revolves around the idea

that human beings are not rational, and we have to look for opportunities to design their choices in ways that are in line with the actual psychology of good decision making. Big-data analytics and behavioral science combined form a strong, data-driven, decision-making approach that can provide competitive advantages for law firms.

As I’ve shown in my work, the idea of nudges – data- driven, scientifically informed tweaks – can improve the traditional process of recruiting, hiring, promoting and sustaining diverse talents. In this case, these nudges are used as part of a concept called Gender Balance System Design (GBSD), which I developed through my research into the types of organizational biases that have become barriers to women reaching the upper levels of the legal profession in larger numbers.

And to identify those nudges, of course, is a primary goal. But first, you should ask two questions: What is the design of the organization? And, what works and what doesn’t work at the firm? That knowledge will allow the business analytics and behavioral economy to come in; and once the data can be gathered, you can identify patterns in a firm’s behavior. Then, the nudges can be designed around certain behavior, and where that behavior is not aligned to its long-term goals to increase diversity, it can be changed.

For example, as the infographic demonstrates, if your firm’s goal is to encourage inclusive leadership, and you want to nudge your people’s behavior toward that goal, there are ways to examine how you lay out preferences and choices for your staff. There are also ways to examine the data around the outcomes you are currently receiving that can suggest analytics-driven behavioral changes to move your firm closer to your goals.

Let’s say that as part of your firm’s overall commitment to diversity and inclusion, the firm wants to ensure that it has a gender-diverse pool of applicants to choose from for hiring and promotion. If the firm looks at its own data and sees that its pools of candidates for new hires or promotions are heavily dominated by white men, it then needs to identify a new course of action by asking itself what it’s doing to attract or repel quality female or minority candidates.

The firm could then try a nudge around behaviors to encourage a sense of belonging among prospective candidates by letting them know that there are other people like themselves within the firm. Indeed, the infographic suggests several ways this nudge could be accomplished, including reaching out online, reviewing the language used in job postings and even including a video testimonial of current firm employees of diverse genders, ages and races.

Or, if your firm – by using its own internal data – has identified a problem with its low retention rate of high- level women or minority lawyers that are reaching the to levels of firm management, how can it respond? The firm could examine its appraisal and promotion processes and ask whether it really handles performance reviews and promotions fairly and effectively. Most importantly, it should determine whether the process is free of the organizational biases that can greatly hinder high-quality women or minority candidates.

One nudge I have suggested here would be to simply discontinue annual performance reviews along with any associated gender/racial biases – inadvertent as they may be – in favor of moving to a system of ongoing evaluations that are based on more equal, data-driven criteria.

Of course, with any nudge designed to move your people toward a more desired behavior, it’s important to constantly monitor the outcomes of this nudge with an eye toward refining and smoothing any transition. In all cases, too, it’s important to remember that these nudges in behavior are presented to people as choices. It is critical to properly and ethically incentivize the right choices in order to improve the behavior toward an identified goal.

Further, there is some research to back up the idea that using these nudges can improve the bottom line as well. In controlled studies, groups of attorneys that were more diverse as a result of nudging reported measurable gains over the control group of 20 percent more engagement with the group, 13 percent better performance and 13 percent higher revenue.

Although these nudges are created, designed and measured for individual needs, they can – when done on an organization-wide level – change the collective behavior of the firm, which in turn, benefits all of its people and prospective employees. And it works because it’s easier to change organizational biases than individual biases. But remember, it takes conscious decisions to design and adhere to solutions that will ultimately attract, promote, retain and sustain female talent within law firms and in-house departments.

However, if you make gender diversity and equality a foundational part of your law firm, those little changes in behavior will pay enormous dividends.


Meet the author

Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio is chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and a senior research fellow, jointly appointed at HLS and at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to joining Harvard, Dr. Cecchi-DiMeglio was a practicing attorney for Landwell & Associés (now PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd.) and Baker McKenzie.
Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio is chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and a senior research fellow, jointly appointed at HLS and at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to joining Harvard, Cecchi-DiMeglio was a practicing attorney for Landwell & Associés (now PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd.) and Baker McKenzie.
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