By Kirsty Spears, Specialist Legal Recruiter for McLeod Duminy
The picture of US President Trump signing an Executive Order that will largely affect women, without a single woman in the room has become infamous and highlights why achieving gender diversity remains an ongoing problem.
The 2016 ALPMA/ McLeod Duminy Legal Industry Salary & HR Issues research indicates a mere 16 per cent of NZ law firm equity partners are female. The figure rises only slightly to 17% in Australia. This despite female law graduates outnumbering male law graduates for more than ten years to date in both countries.
But this is simply not translating into leadership. Roughly two thirds of non-partner lawyers in firms across the region are female and it can’t be a recipe for success if law firms are effectively picking leaders from one third of the talent in the firm.
Research shows the gender gap won’t just correct itself, even when the numbers seem to force the issue. The opportunity missed is not just for women; it is also for firms and their clients because:
- clients increasingly want firms to reflect their own efforts on diversity. E.g. a recent utility company pitch placed a great deal of emphasis on diversity and in effect ruled out firms that didn’t have strong policy in the area;
- female in-house counsel want the opportunity to do business with other women; and
- there is strong evidence that there are economic benefits to a diverse leadership team because different perspectives create a better strategy.
Often the solution to helping/encouraging women into more senior roles is framed simply as needing more flexible work arrangements, but the wider issue is more complex than that. In fact, flexibility is the easiest change to make as long as there is an appetite for it and it works for all parties.
For example, the Managing Partner of a firm we work with realised that he spent more than a quarter of his time working remotely without it affecting his productivity and so he implemented a policy to allow others to do the same. The rule is simply that clients aren’t adversely affected.
Firms are getting better at investing in technology to enable employees to work remotely. There are great success stories and a new generation coming through that value time more than anything and expect connectivity as an every day part of their working environment.
There’s also a major shift for men these days as their partners increasingly choose not to, or are financially unable to stay at home and look after the kids. She is equally likely to have a successful career. Men also value family time and want to be able to be home for bedtime and stories.
There are a few practical things a firm can do to encourage better gender diversity:
Unconscious bias – this comes about mostly at the recruitment and promotion stages. It comes in two forms. Affinity is looking for people in your own image and confirmation is a reflection of one’s own beliefs. This needs to be something that is acknowledged and recognised.
The best way to combat it is to have formal processes, set steps and strong criteria. There needs to be more behind the decision-making than someone ‘doesn’t have what it takes’. An easy first step is to include several different people in the process in the first instance. More extreme measures can include blind CVs and electronic screening.
Male vs. Female traits – stereotypically male traits, e.g. assertiveness, logical thinking etc., could more or less describe most people’s idea of the perfect lawyer. As well as challenging
those stereotypes, we need to start valuing traditionally feminine attributes e.g. language skills, empathy and the ability to multitask.
Giving women a platform to show off their skills – Females tend to wait for recognition whilst males are quicker to ‘boast’ about their achievements. Giving women a platform to show off a little will help them recognise their own strengths and bring them to wider attention. It also enables the firm to make the most of their talents.
During performance reviews, men tend to be good at looking after their own paths, whereas women tend to look after the firm. Most reviews look at billings, but when looking at overall team contribution, they tend to be nice things to talk about but not objectively measured. Firms need to look at how to better measure overall contribution because those who are more team orientated are likely allowing the big billers the space to work.
It seems law firms necessarily recruit more women because they enthusiastically join the profession. So doesn’t it make sense more than ever for these firms to ensure they are getting the very best out of their most valuable assets?
*Source: ALPMA/McLeod Duminy NZ Legal Industry Salary and HR Issues Survey Report 2016