Difference Blindness vs. Bias Awareness: Why Law Firms with the Best of Intentions Have Failed to Create Diverse Partnerships

By Russell G. Pearce, Eli Wald & Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen
April 1, 2015

This Article uses the example of BigLaw firms to explore the challenges that many elite organizations face in providing equal opportunity to their workers. Despite good intentions and the investment of significant resources, large law firms have been consistently unable to deliver diverse partnership structures—especially in more senior positions of power. Building on implicit and institutional bias scholarship and on successful approaches described in the organizational behavior literature, we argue that a significant barrier to systemic diversity at the law firm partnership level has been, paradoxically, the insistence on difference blindness standards that seek to evaluate each person on their individual merit. While powerful in dismantling intentional discrimination, these standards rely on an assumption that lawyers are, and have the power to act as, atomistic individuals—a dangerous assumption that has been disproven consistently by the literature establishing the continuing and powerful influence of implicit and institutional bias. Accordingly, difference blindness, which holds all lawyers accountable to seemingly neutral standards, disproportionately disadvantages diverse populations and normalizes the dominance of certain actors—here, white men—by creating the illusion that success or failure depends upon individual rather than structural constraints. In contrast, we argue that a bias awareness approach that encourages identity awareness and a relational framework is a more promising way to promote equality, equity, and inclusion.