Stereotyping and Bias can Affect Success in the Law, Panelists Say
The Summer Olympics provided a fitting backdrop for an analogy from a panelist at the ABA Annual Meeting on how bias and stereotyping affect career performance among members of differing racial, ethnic and gender groups.
Steven Spencer, a psychology professor at Waterloo University in Canada who has researched the issue, asked the audience to imagine the race heats of two hypothetical runners—one who faces no headwind, the other who must contend with a 20 m.p.h. headwind. The latter, he pointed out, obviously won’t perform as well.
For purposes of discussion at the panel, titled “Beyond Diversity: How Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias Contribute to the Status Gap,” Spencer said that bias and stereotyping are the headwinds in our culture that reduce opportunities for success. He cited research experiments, for example, that suggest standardized test-takers do better when they are told they are expected to succeed versus those who are expected to fail.
Panel moderator Alex Acosta is dean of Florida International University College of Law and a member of the ABA Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, which sponsored the program. He explained that the council decided to address the increasingly understood phenomena of stereotype threat and implicit bias in order to advance its mission to foster opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds throughout the so-called legal-professional pipeline.
Some say the legal-professional pipeline starts as early as messages and opportunities received in toddlerhood and continues throughout a lawyer’s career. The panelists noted that although outright racism and sexism may be on the decline, subtle messages from others and from within can hold back women and people of color from succeeding in law school and practice.
“Research has shown that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance,” explained Rodney Fong, associate dean at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.
Fong’s law school charged him with the task of boosting its bar exam scores, which were so low that ABA accreditation may have been at risk. After gaining an understanding of stereotype threat and implicit bias from existing research literature, Fong began to meet one on one with his lower-performing students and challenged their assumptions that assumed failure. By boosting their confidence and affirming positive messages about their abilities, the school eventually doubled its bar passage rate.
Paulette Brown, partner and chief diversity officer at Edwards Wildman Palmer in New Jersey, explained that stereotype threat and implicit bias can hold back diverse lawyers at firms, which can diminish the investment firms often make in hiring lawyers of diverse backgrounds.
Brown challenged audience members to be aware of “the iceberg rule,” which holds that people at first can observe only a small portion above the surface and that there’s much that lies beneath. She and Acosta urged lawyers, when hiring, to go beyond top-ranked law schools and have faith in the abilities that other job applicants bring to the table.
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