By Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio
Gender diversity is not merely an ornamental gesture of corporate benevolence. Creating and maintaining a gender-balanced workforce is essential to business strategy, viability, and competitiveness. Most conversations around diversity and female leadership focus on the business benefits. Three of the primary arguments for diverse leadership are that it (1) has a far better chance of solving complex problems; (2) leads to increased innovation; and (3) drives financial growth.
The uptick in women graduating from law school was supposed to repair the gender gap at law firms, but its arrival has been delayed. For a long time, women’s broadening educational paths, including their increased attendance at law schools, were expected to lead to a proportional increase in female leaders in the legal profession. The truth is, it did not happen.
One big reason is that most current default rules in organizations by their design are impeding the process of attracting, recruiting, and promoting more women. That’s because tiny biases have crept into the process. The solution points to planned, intentional action that nudges more women into leadership and other roles in law firms.
In my research at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, I design solutions to attract, recruit, promote, and sustain women in leadership roles. On the basis of my research at several national and international law firms, I show that gentle pushes—or “nudges”—and a consistent organizational process with well-defined decision points allow firms to achieve the goal of gender balance that has, to date, eluded them.
Forging a path to the top for female attorneys can be achieved by adopting a “nudging” approach. Nudges provide actionable elements that can be engaged to create a systematic approach to establishing a competitive system for female talent.
This article presents examples of nudging techniques in action successfully applied in attracting and recruiting more women, especially lateral hires. Firms that have used this approach have made real gains in the recruitment of women lawyers at various levels—including double-digit increases in the number of women hired—as the charts below show.
These nudges are designed on the basis of empirical evidence of how men and women behave, often times differently, both in general and in the specific context of the law firms I’ve studied. They’ve also been designed with consideration as to how female and male candidates at law firms are attracted and assessed.
While forthcoming research will study and quantify the cost and the return on investment (ROI) for law firms that maintain a more diverse and more engaged leadership and workforce, this article discusses the benefit of adopting a nudging approach and describes the impact of such an approach on attracting and hiring more women, especially lateral hires.
- Make it easy for women to see the commitment of the firm to gender equality.
- Use language that resonates with a mixed talent pool of applicants.
- Tell people why others join the firm.
- Make it easy to assess the new hire.
- Highlight key messages: draw people’s attention to important information or actions required of them, for example, by highlighting them upfront in a letter.
- Use personal language so that people understand why a message or process is relevant to them.
- Prompt quick feedback at key moments: ensure that people are prompted to give an unbiased assessment at key moments when rating candidate answers.
- Tell people what others are doing: highlight the positive behavior of others—for instance, “nine out of 10 interviewers provide better feedback about potential hires with these nudges.”
- Reward desired behavior: actively incentivize or reward behavior to participate in the interview.
Nudging creates competitive advantages
Attracting, hiring, and retaining talent is the result of organizational decision-making dynamics. Organizational procedures result from the leadership’s decision making and enable organizations to function. In theory, such decision-making processes seem rather straightforward: a goal is defined, and a course of action is set out. If a problem emerges, the possible options and actions are identified for achieving and solving the problem. The different options are then analyzed and weighed, and the most effective one is selected and adopted by the organization.
To create more equal gender representation in the legal profession requires choices and actions that are not yet part of the thinking and procedures that govern hiring and recruitment.
This account of organizational function and procedure seems linear, logical, and capable of addressing and disposing of any challenges that might arise. If it were this simple, then the legal profession, and more particularly law firms, would not continue to struggle with having a more diverse organization and leadership especially given that the legal profession is made up of individuals who are adept at problem solving. Were it this simple, a solution would have been devised and implemented, and the result would not just be more women in law firms in general, but also more women in senior-level positions. However, practice proves to be more difficult to change than theory suggests. As it turns out, to create more equal gender representation in the legal profession requires choices and actions that are not yet part of the thinking and procedures that govern hiring and recruitment.
The attraction and recruitment process is the pentacle for creating a successful workforce and retaining the right people. In fact, candidates choose law firms, and vice versa, based on their preferences and beliefs about whether one could thrive in a given practice area and within a particular firm. Messages and procedures shape those beliefs on both sides of the equation (interviewer and candidate). Tiny biases in the attracting and recruiting process can lead to huge disparities in representation at the highest levels of a law firm, especially in the representation of women. In fact, people are influenced by irrelevant details in the decision-making process, which is reflected in the firm’s procedures. The attracting and recruiting process ultimately reflects how the firm’s beliefs and values are shaped.
The solution is creating planned, intentional actions that nudge more women into leadership and other roles in law firms. A way to do this is by using what I call “Gender Balance System Design,” or GBSD (see graphic below). This approach consists of utilizing known information from various scientific fields and aligning this information to assist law firms so that they can attract, recruit, and promote more women. When designing solutions, the smallest details matter.
GBSD’s key objective is to design better procedures within the organization. These procedures are aligned with the organizational strategy and aimed at bringing more women to all aspects of an institution. This increase is implemented through policies, programs, and projects, using nudging techniques and measured in terms of outcomes and impacts. GBSD is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of procedures so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not fostered or perpetuated.
GBSD is based on various fields of study. In particular, it is rooted in behavioral economics, psychology, and sociology. It helps us on two fronts. First, it fosters an understanding of individuals and organizations, especially with respect to their decision-making processes. Second, design thinking and organizational behavior help us develop solutions and nudges that can influence the process and the decisions. The knowledge and utilization of nudges by the legal profession is still in its infancy, but increasingly it is receiving attention.
So how do you attract and recruit more women to your law firm by using GBSD and adopting a nudging approach? Let’s start with attracting more women.
Nudges to attract more women
“Employment opportunity” is a misnomer. With it comes an assumption that has disappointed many hirers, especially those aspiring to close the gender gap at the leadership level. That assumption is: “If you post it, they will apply, will be interviewed, and will be hired.” This default process has not increased the number of women applying for positions at law firms, especially as lateral candidates. In what is assumed to be a straightforward process, employers extend a chance to be hired, and candidates compete for the prize of employment. This approach feels even more appropriate when the employer is a prestigious law firm. The process assumes that candidates find the advertised position desirable and that they need the position for the income.
But research indicates that these two elements are not the key drivers of job seekers’ decisions to apply. Consequently, the usual messaging fails, especially with female job seekers are coming in laterally. In reality, from the perspectives of both job seekers and employers, the process is like navigating through a labyrinth. Getting candidates to feel invited to apply for advertised positions is a challenge for job posters and job seekers.
The assumption is: “If you post it, they will apply, will be interviewed, and will be hired.” This has not increased the number of women applying for positions at law firms.
Despite clear and benevolent intentions, employers and candidates can see the space between the posting of jobs and the onboarding of new hires as a maze of communication challenges. In social settings, making people feel invited and welcome to attend may seem simple, but it requires significant effort and expertise. Let’s face it, our decision to attend or not attend a party may hinge entirely on the types of food being served. List the right foods, and everyone will feel welcome. In fact, we can reverse engineer a menu and calculate how diverse a gathering will be, whether or not we’ll be able to find our food niche. Fortunately, American party fare has evolved into something characteristically diverse and, to coin a term, “multinivorous.”
Well, jobs are just like parties. Postings and ads are the invitations. Get it right, and everyone feels that there is something for them. Get it wrong, and many applicants will reverse engineer the ad and conclude that it’s not the place for them. And that’s not all. After confirming that we’ll be nourished, we get curious about the other attendees. Will we be able to find a few people similar to ourselves?
If the firm’s job posting is the party invite, then its website—especially the front page (the first impression)—serves as the photo album. It showcases regular attendees and current activities. One look and we’ll know if we’d feel welcome. Like it or not, first impressions wield a magical, one-time-only power. In marketing positions at a law firm, especially with the goal of attracting diverse applicants, drawing attention to resonant images and information right away seems the obvious way to go. Yet most law firms tend to use the landing page to sell their full range of practices and services. Aspirations and efforts to attract more women are usually buried many clicks away, relegated to the information or communications pages or hidden behind layers of tabs.
If organizations aspire to increase the number of women hired and foster the representation of women in leadership roles, they must take control of the space between those aspirations and their realization. There are deliberate considerations and actions that eliminate the confusion experienced by employees and potential applicants. Most of the time, applicants are left to interpret the characteristics of the job and organization, considering them relative to their own needs and values in order to determine fit. Applicants’ perceived fit then results from their appraisal of the interaction between their personal characteristics, and advertised needs and job’s organizational characteristics. It is necessary to intervene at select points in this process to attract more female applicants.
Nudge 1: Include what your lawyers say
Many hirers believe that candidates read job posts primarily as economic or career-building opportunities. They have concluded that these needs are dominant and will yield a diverse applicant pool. In reality, potential applicants, especially those who are currently underrepresented in higher-ranking and leadership roles, tend to parse the language of firm websites and job postings to assess the attractiveness of the position relative to gender or race. When organizations view candidates, especially women, as individuals shopping for a fair and sustainable work culture, solutions begin to emerge. These solutions are frequently about crafting and leveraging first impressions.
Most job postings are drafted without consulting members of the firm—both men and women—who are not directly involved in the hiring process. As a result, law firms deprive themselves of the input of current lawyers. In particular, they miss out on the perspectives of women lawyers, who can often best articulate what it takes to be successful within the organization and provide evidence of the firm’s commitment to gender equality. Integrating the words and suggestions of women can prompt job seekers to apply. Women candidates often seek work environments where they can achieve and ascend. Including women in the postdrafting process and the ads makes the organization more appealing to women, especially those currently working at other firms.
How was this process successfully nudged? Before drafting ads, two separate surveys consisting of five questions were sent to two randomly selected groups of attorneys—groups with notably different perspectives. The first group consisted of lawyers who had joined the firm within the last year and had a minimum of four years at the associate level. Lawyers in the second group had joined the firm at least five years prior and had either joined as new attorney hires and were subsequently promoted or had come in as lateral hires. The surveys elicited (1) the factors that prompted these women and men to join the firm; (2) the motives underlying recent career choices; and (3) the decisions and experiences that led them to where they were at the time.
Here are the comments of the recent hires (group 1):
- “Here, the experience you acquired sets you apart. I appreciate the attention to feedback I received from other associates and partners on being a better lawyer.”
- “I am constantly stepping out of my comfort zone. I was looking for an environment that provided intellectual stimulation and a fast pace as well as moving the ranks to partner with a ‘LIFE.’”
And here’s what the veterans (group 2) said:
- “This choice provided me a life of learning opportunities.”
- “Each of my team members has different personal strengths. As a team, we work together and respect our differences.”
- “We are creative in our problem-solving approach, and we are helping our clients in a meaningful way.”
The survey compelled individuals to talk about the motives for a recent and important decision in their career, as well as to reflect on past decisions and experiences that led them to where they are today. It yielded material that enabled female candidates to appreciate the firm’s commitment to gender equality and provided diversely resonant language and a competitive advantage for reaching a gender-mixed pool of applicants. Such surveys are essential to drafting effective posts and ads and tremendously assist with designing subsequent nudges.
Nudge 2: Include more women on your homepage
It is no secret that individuals who enter settings where they find themselves suddenly in the minority tend to respond by looking around for others like themselves. Familiarity creates comfort and fosters a sense of belonging and safety. Websites are virtual settings, and in the case of a law firm’s website, they are places where women are frequently put in the minority. Law firms that commit to attracting larger pools of female applicants can capitalize on the power of first impressions. Firms can use well-researched, custom-designed modifications to establish women’s sense of value and belonging the moment they land on the website’s prime real estate: the homepage. A nudge, crafted to operate within a firm’s specific culture, aspirations, or behavior, can spotlight women in a way that results in a more gender-diverse applicant pool.
This web-design spotlight nudge has been successfully employed. Applicants were directed to either a control landing web page or a modified one. The modification consisted of two parts: (1) images, language, and media on the landing page of the firm’s website featured pictures of an equal number of men and women and (2) language was modified and page titles, usually tucked in the upper left corner, were revised to read, for example, “Women and men at [FIRM NAME]” or “Our people.” Also, under each profile picture of the gender-balanced selection of people featured, information in bold text highlighted the reasons these individuals decided to join the firm and the ways in which they felt valued in their positions.
Law firms that commit to attracting larger pools of female applicants can capitalize on the power of first impressions.
Presenting pictures of actual lawyers on the landing page, with their words, perspectives, and experiences, documents a firm’s demographics, functions, and hierarchy. It reveals who is visible or not visible at the firm. Those who are featured in this first impression represent the workforce the firm intends to attract.
This nudge succeeded in emphasizing a sense of belonging; potential applicants saw others like themselves, which fostered a sense of comfort and familiarity. Based on my research, the nudge increased the perception of belonging by female applicants from 47.7 percent to 67.5 percent. This nudge also helped shape the internal environment. It set the norms for engagement relative to the level of gender equality that the firm is committed to achieving.
Nudge 3: Change the language in your ad
When drafting job postings, it is easy to slip into language that sounds exclusively masculine. The titles and diction in law firms’ postings tend to reflect male-dominant language. In addition, much of the language of work, responsibility, and achievement leans on a martial lexicon of commanding, dominating, fighting, and winning.
To test the capacity of modified language to increase applications from women, two versions of an advertisement were posted in parallel. The first ad employed traditional wording. The second ad was designed to resonate across a broad female target group and specifically crafted to cover various practice areas. It featured modified titles, descriptions, and requirements. This second ad consistently produced a more gender-mixed applicant pool.
Typical Ad vs. Better Ad
A few tweaks to a standard ad can make all the difference in the number of female lawyers attracted to a position, my research shows. The ad on the left received 62.3 percent female applicants; the one on the right, 72.5 percent. Women can be more intimidated than men by long lists of required qualifications, even if they’re as qualified or more qualified than male candidates.
Key modifications to the second ad incorporated these changes:
- Included both genders in the job title [female and male]
- Listed a maximum of about six essential requirements, rather than a long “nice to have” list
- Substituted language like “community environment” for “dominant firm”
The result? This nudge consistently produced a more gender-mixed applicant pool, increasing the percentage of women applicants from 62.3 percent to 72.5 percent.
Tweak the language of the ad to make more people feel welcome, and the list of those seeking to apply will grow. More potential candidates will feel that there is something there for them. These nudges do not favor one gender over another; they equalize candidates’ perception of their suitability for advertised positions.
Nudge 4: Show that your leaders support diversity
Leaders determine and communicate what the organization’s priorities are to all members of the firm. Men and women are more likely to be attracted to a firm, selected as employees of the firm, and remain at the firm when their own values, attitudes, and personalities match the dominant values and personality of the leadership and the practice group to which they belong.
Yet, to candidates applying for positions at law firms, leadership’s commitment to gender diversity may not be immediately visible. Through my research, I’ve found that it’s important that websites feature quotes from the leadership team about the firm welcoming diverse talents and inviting lawyers to apply. However, some firm applicants are directed to a job application site featuring just the ad without words from the leadership regarding its commitment to gender diversity.
Other firms do steer applicants to a page that presents quotes about gender diversity from a member of the leadership committee. These words appear in a box after the job description. Comments are simple and short:
- “Our diverse talents drive our success.”
- “Our lawyers are our greatest strength.”
- “The diversity of our people is the cornerstone of our ability to serve our clients.”
- “Diversity and inclusion aren’t practice group efforts or client/project related. They’re how we live, what we respect, and a fundamental aspect of our success.”
- “You should be able to have a fantastic career and a full life, and to do it in a way that works for you. I agree—and [Firm Name’s] supportive culture will help you achieve those goals.”
(While omitted here, references also included the names of the lawyers and their titles, including executive partner, executive leadership group member, and chair of the management committee.)
The key goal of these messages is to supply potential applicants with cues that allow them to clearly see the commitment of the firm to attracting and retaining a diverse pool of applicants. There are a number of ways of making messages more persuasive that resonate with both men and women equally. For example, data shows that this simple nudge resulted in an increase from 68.3 percent female applicants to 79 percent female applicants.
Nudge 5: Include a video!
Even if the work environment and requirements seem like a good fit, motivating potential candidates to apply for a position can be challenging. Many applicants, including women, often decline to submit an application because they feel that they lack all the qualifications described in the posting—the connection between the job as represented in the ad and the applicants is not strong enough or personal enough to motivate people to apply. Including a video in connection with your ad helps eliminate the disconnect and increases the number of women in the applicant pool.
In my research, we directed some applicants to a control web page with the application form only and no video. Others were steered to a page with the application form and a short video, in which a gender-diverse group of lawyers from the firm talk about opportunities and career-life integration. When applicants click on the job application form, a 90-second video begins playing in the left corner of the screen. The video launches automatically with the sound muted, but applicants may turn on the sound. It showcases two senior associates and two partners who currently work at the firm, two women and two men. They describe the firm’s values and why they love to work there. The key message delivered to potential candidates is “We are a global, diverse law firm that values our talents.” This nudge demonstrates to applicants that career-life integration and opportunities are available at the firm. The nudge increased female applicants from 63.8 percent to 83 percent.
Including a video in connection with your ad helps eliminate the disconnect and increases the number of women in the applicant pool.
Collectively, these “spotlight” nudges, as I call them, help equalize the perception of one’s suitability for a position. They tell applicants why others joined the firm. They highlight women succeeding at the organization. They use language and images that resonate with a mixed pool of talent. These nudges make it easy for women to see the firm’s commitment to gender equality, and that results in a gender-mixed pool of applicants for your firm.
After firms excel at attracting female talent, how do they then follow up with excellence in recruiting that talent?
Nudges to recruit more women
Recruitment is key to creating a successful workforce and mending the gender gap. But, generally speaking, organizational (hiring) procedures are not advantageous for women. Yet, even in the face of the need to enhance the firm’s competitiveness through gender equity, minute biases in the recruitment process tend to maintain disparities in the representation of women at the highest levels of law firms. Why is recruitment subject to bias? To name a few reasons, (1) hiring decisions are based on limited information about candidates; (2) often many interviewers are involved, each with different standards in evaluating potential hires; and (3) communication can be inconsistent or ambiguous.
Nudge 1: Send an e-mail to interviewers
This first step is what I call an “encouragement nudge.” It is directed internally, and it begins with an e-mail.
Before meeting with candidates, an e-mail is sent to all staff involved in hiring, primarily partners and associates. The e-mail requests their feedback on the specific skills that the practice group seeks to acquire. This provides a picture of where the firm wants to go with respect to the recruitment of women, and it ensures that efforts are aligned with aspirations.
The encouragement component of this nudge consists of two parts: First, there is bold text in the e-mail’s subject area that explicitly asks hiring partners and associates to keep in mind how important it is for the firm to recruit more women and how the firm overall values women. Second, participating associates and partners are asked to respond to two questions that relate to the number of women in their group with whom they have worked over the past week and within the last month.
These questions are designed to remind the interviewers about their own experiences at the firm. They compel individuals to reflect on the presence of women at the firm, the number of women at the senior level, and the distribution or clustering of women across practice groups and job functions. Participants can see how the actual numbers might differ from the professed values and intentions of the firm, as these relate to having more women across the organization.
The e-mail reminds and aligns the hiring participants. It sets the tone and establishes the degree of social engagement for achieving the levels of gender equality to which the firm is committed. This nudge ensures that everyone is informed, onboard, and pointed in the right direction.
Nudge 2: Design the interview
In my research, the persistence of ideas relative to gender and roles in the legal profession was confirmed by coding and surveying different tasks. Based on the data, different types of tasks were coded to identify the patterns where male and female role were substantially different. For instance, “female” tasks included fact investigation and fact development; “male” tasks included deposition, discovery, and international patent prosecution. To prevent these stereotypes from posing a barrier to gender equality, it is necessary to design gender-neutral interviews. The first step is to assess core competencies and values and determine where gender gaps exist in the leadership and top ranks.
Structured interviews prevent reliance on gendered assumptions.
A list of criteria for identifying these competencies and values includes requirements for associates at each year of practice. Candidate assessment criteria are then developed and provided to all interviewers. These criteria cover all competencies sought and value all tasks equally, with respect to gender assumptions. To ensure uniformity and remove accidental bias, each competency is covered at least once by one of the interviewers in the various rounds. Key competencies are covered several times. Some of these competencies are revealed by asking candidates how they would respond in hypothetical situations or by eliciting examples from work related to each competency. Options in my research have included recounting the most challenging deal, merger, or litigation in which they were involved.
These adjustments remove systemic bias and build a process that yields a high degree of job-relevant information. Situational questions support gender-neutral assessment because intentions, decision making, and past actions are predictive of future behavior.
Assessable information includes relevant skill sets and abilities such as values and ethics, capacity for strategic thinking, degree of engagement, and level of management excellence. In fact, these elements are best examined through structured interviews. Responses are judged against rating scales that grade answers low, moderate, or high. (This design helps the interviewer review relevant skill sets, abilities and information such as values and ethics, strategic thinking, engagement, and management excellence, which can be assessed more effectively through structured interviews.)
One good method is to distinguish different points on the rating scale for specific behaviors. This precision will help fulfill two goals: (1) all attorneys conducting the candidate interviews share a common understanding of what a given qualification means, and (2) there is a shared, standardized scale for behaviors that represent weak, moderate, and strong performance on related interview questions.
How do you create an appropriate behavioral anchor for this scale? Refer to key documents such as the statement of criteria established by the firm or practice group or your firm’s competency profile.
Structured interviews prevent reliance on gendered assumptions. Their precision gives interviewers a shared understanding of what a given qualification means and provides a common scale on which to rate the performance on interview questions. As law firms nudge unintentional bias out of interviews, they eliminate some of the barriers that stand between the gender diversity they seek and the gender diversity that actually exists at all levels of their organizations.
Nudge 3: Rate the candidates
The value of using credentials in interviews and the firm’s commitment to hire more women are highlighted at the top of the interview document. Each interviewer dates and signs the document.
In this nudge, each question is designed to assess one key competency and several secondary competencies. More than one question is asked during the interview, and shortly after the interview, each interviewer assigns independent ratings for each applicant. This assessment is completed immediately, ensuring that interviewers better remember the applicant’s performance. It is also performed in isolation so that interviewers remain uninfluenced by others’ opinions.
At the final decision stage, the applicants’ responses across questions are compared. This approach ensures the use of a single rating for each competency across the different interviewers of a given candidate. In addition, to further ensure collective, uniform decision making, interviewers rate each applicant against specific criteria before making summary judgments about whether to hire him or her. As my research shows, using this approach, interviewer ratings fall more in line with their summary judgments than if they were allowed to make summary judgments before rating the candidates against the specific criteria.
Finally, evaluators are asked to decide whom to include (rather than whom to exclude) from a list of individuals who will receive job offers. This helps people view and evaluate each candidate individually. It ensures that they evaluate candidates after seeing all the options available and that they simultaneously evaluate multiple candidates. As a result, evaluators, equipped with tools that steer them clear of subjective or biased strategies, can arrive at choices that are based on more-objective criteria. This nudge, in particular, ensures that hirers are less likely to slip into patterns that introduce systematic biases into their evaluations and choices, especially when considering female candidates.
What should we make of this?
Attracting and recruiting talent ranks as one of the most significant processes in any organization because it creates and sustains a successful workforce. Attracting and hiring the right people gives an organization a competitive advantage that no other resource can impart. Increasingly, organizations find themselves undertaking efforts to attract and hire women. They pursue this goal to create much needed equity and to build diversity that can be leveraged. Even the best intentions, actions, and expectations are failing to close the workplace gender gap. The application of custom-designed, organization-specific nudges to attract and recruit women, as described above, measurably increase the amount of talented women who apply and are thus hired. Supported by research conducted at high-performance law firms and other organizations, nudges change the conversation and rate of hiring. They achieve this by creating a consistent, bias-reducing system and set of procedures that level the playing field and are advantageous for all, including women.
Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D., is chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School and a senior research fellow, jointly appointed at HLS and Harvard Kennedy School (WAPPP). The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HLSPaola