Photo Illustration by Joe Schlue
Photo Illustration by Joe Schlue ()

Many employers believe that job seekers read want ads because they’re looking mainly for positions with more money and/or prestige. They’ve concluded that these needs are dominant, and will automatically yield a diverse applicant pool.

In reality, potential applicants—especially those underrepresented in higher-ranking and leadership roles, including women and minorities—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, they realize that they need to focus on crafting and leveraging first impressions. For law firms, that means focusing on the firm’s website.

How do you attract more women to your firm? In my research at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, I design solutions to attract, recruit, sustain and promote more women in leadership roles. I show that gentle pushes—or “nudges,” as I call them—and consistent processes allow firms to achieve the goal of having more diverse leadership.

Two main ways exist to increase the number of women in leadership roles: through internal organic growth or through an external attraction process. In this article, I focus on nudges that increase the number of women in the applicant pool. (Also check out my previous related article, “To Hire More Women, Follow These Steps.”)

My advice isn’t hypothetical. The following techniques, which I’ve used in my work with dozens of national and international law firms, have led those firms to attract more female applicants. They’re based on empirical evidence of how men and women respond differently to job postings and how they assess job applications in general and in the legal world. The nudges have also been designed with consideration to how actual female and male candidates at law firms were attracted to those firms, and why and how they decided to apply for jobs there.

Nudge 1: See what your own lawyers say

Most job postings are drafted without consulting firm lawyers who aren’t directly involved in the hiring process. In particular, they miss out on the words and perspectives of their own female lawyers, who can best articulate what it takes to be successful within the organization and provide evidence of the firm’s commitment to gender equality. (Women candidates often seek work environments where they can achieve and ascend.)

Integrating the words and suggestions of women lawyers into job postings can prompt women to apply.

How was this process successfully nudged? Before drafting ads, two separate surveys of five questions each were sent to two randomly selected groups of attorneys within a firm, groups with notably different perspectives. The first group had joined the firm within the last year and had a minimum of four years of associate experience. Lawyers in the second group joined the firm at least five years prior as new attorney hires or as lateral hires. The surveys elicited the factors that prompted these women and men to join the firm; the motives underlying recent career 
choices; and the decisions and experiences that led them to where they were at the time.

Here are comments of recent hires:

“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 up the ranks to partner with a “LIFE.”

And here’s what the veterans 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 and we are helping our clients in a meaningful way.”

Such ideas and language, when incorporated into a firm’s website, provide a competitive advantage for reaching a gender-mixed pool of applicants. Such surveys were essential to drafting effective posts and ads and furnished tremendous assistance in designing subsequent nudges.

Nudge 2: Include women on your homepage

It is no secret that individuals who enter settings where they find themselves in the minority tend to respond by looking around for others like themselves. Familiarity creates comfort; it fosters a sense of belonging and safety. Websites are places where women are frequently in the minority.

Firms that commit to attracting larger pools of female applicants by establishing a woman’s sense of belonging on the homepage can capitalize on the power of first impressions.

In my research, applicants were directed to either a control firm landing webpage or a modified one. In the modification, images and language were revised to feature an equal number of men and women. Titles, usually tucked in the upper left corner, were changed to read “Women and Men at [firm name]” or “ Our people.” Also, under each picture of the featured employees, bold text highlighted the reasons they joined the firm and the ways in which they felt valued.

Presenting pictures of actual lawyers on the landing page with their perspectives serves to document a firm’s demographics, functions and hierarchy. Those featured represent the workforce that the firm intends to attract.

This nudge succeeded in emphasizing a sense of belonging; potential applicants saw others like themselves, and that fostered a sense of comfort. The nudge increased the perception of belonging by female applicants from 47.7 percent to 67.5 percent.

Moreover, this nudge shapes the internal environment. It sets the norms for engagement relative to the level of gender equality that the firm is committed to achieving.

Nudge 3: Adjust the language in your ad

When drafting job postings, it is easy to slip into language that sounds exclusively masculine. 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 ad were posted in parallel. (See “Guess Which of These Two Ads Attracts More Women?”) The first ad employed traditional wording. The second ad was designed to resonate across a broad female target group and was crafted to cover various practice areas. It featured modified titles, descriptions and requirements. This second ad consistently produced a more gender-mixed applicant pool, increasing the percentage of women applicants from 62.3 percent to 72.5 percent.

This nudge doesn’t favor one gender over another; it equalizes candidates’ perception of their suitability for advertised positions.

Nudge 4: Show your leaders supporting diversity

Leaders determine and communicate what the organization’s priorities are. Men and women are more likely to be attracted to a firm, hired into the firm and remain there when their values match the dominant values of the leadership and their practice group.

Yet to candidates applying for positions at firms, leadership commitment to gender diversity may not be immediately visible. It’s important that websites feature quotes from the leadership team about the firm welcoming diverse talents and inviting lawyers to apply.

In my research, some firm applicants were directed to a control webpage job application featuring just the ad and no words from the leadership regarding gender diversity. Other applicants were steered to a page that also presented quotes about gender diversity from a member of the leadership committee.

These words appear in a box after the job description. Omitted here, references include the names of the lawyers and their titles (executive partner, executive leadership group member, chair, management committee). Comments are simple and short:

“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/projects-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 XYZ’s supportive culture will help you achieve those goals.”

The goal of these messages is allow applicants to clearly see the commitment of the firm to attract and retain a diverse pool of applicants. This 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 seems like a good fit, many applicants, including women, decline to submit an application because they feel that they lack all the qualifications described in the posting. The connection between the applicant and the job as represented is not strong enough or personal enough to motivate application. Including a video in connection with your ad helps to eliminate the disconnect and increases the number of women in the applicant pool.

In my research, we directed some applicants to a control webpage with the application form only; others were steered to a page with the application form and a short video.

When people click on the application, the 90-second video begins playing in the left corner of the screen. It launches automatically with the sound muted; applicants may turn on 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: “We are a global, diverse law firm that values our talents.” This nudge shows applicants that career-life integration and opportunities are available at the firm. It increased female applicants from 63.8 percent to 83 percent.

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. The nudges make it easy for women to see the commitment of the firm to gender equality in such a way that your firm receives a gender-mixed pool of applicants.