Gender equality remains a largely elusive dream for the legal industry, with few women making it into senior roles across many of the world’s leading firms. So, what are the obstacles preventing more women from progressing to the most senior ranks in the legal sector? And what do firms need to do to address the gender imbalance that seems to get worse the further up the ranks one goes?

Data on discrepancies

Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 found, despite more initiatives to increase gender diversity at senior levels in firms, women remain underrepresented at the top level. The widest gaps exist within mainland European firms, where women account for 59 per cent of junior associates, but only 21 per cent of equity partners. In comparison, in Asia-Pacific countries, women account for 54 per cent of junior associates, but 27 per cent of equity partner roles. The research also found, globally, male equity partners are paid 28 per cent, on average, more than female equity partners.

Obstacle course?

There are several obstacles currently preventing women from climbing to more senior positions in firms. One of these is an unconscious bias that exists in many firms. An example is when a hiring committee made up of mainly men may tend to appoint another man to a role.

Another obstacle preventing women from progressing is the working culture that exists at many firms. The long hours often required make it more difficult for people with caring responsibilities from combining a full-time role with family life, and caring responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on women. This is major factor why many women choose to leave their roles before they even reach middle management level.

Solutions so far?

To tackle the gender imbalances, some firms have introduced measures to try and encourage more women into senior roles. One measure that some have taken is to pair junior female employees with more senior colleagues to mentor them on areas of work such as culture, inclusion and diversity.

However, our research suggested that these mentorship schemes have been seen to create a culture of ‘othering’, where women are set apart from men and perceived as needing ‘special treatment’.

Another measure some firms have taken to address gender imbalances has been to introduce ‘gender blind’ work allocation policy, meant to ensure decisions made about workflow and its distribution are free from gender bias. However, research shows this is less effective than other measures, such as simply ensuring a balance of men and women on each working team.

There are some practice areas in firms where very few women have experience carrying out projects. Blindly and randomly allocating workflow means many women would then be unable to build up their skills and experience in areas in which they have not previously worked.

Another measure some firms introduced is the creation of ‘women-only networks’ – groups formed where female employees can discuss and share any concerns or ideas about working at the firm, aimed at increasing retention amongst female staff. However, this initiative has the potential to set women apart from men rather than integrating them within the firm, potentially alienating men from the process of improving gender diversity.

The way ahead

Measures our research suggests have shown to improve gender diversity include steps to counter unconscious bias, such as disguising the gender of applicants on CVs, and ensuring gender-balanced assessment panels for candidates.

In addition, flexible working for all team members can improve gender diversity. It can allow women with caring or childcare responsibilities to better balance family life with a role at the firm. Covid-19 has prompted a rapid, global shift towards remote, flexible working, benefitting many female employees in the process.

The pandemic has suddenly given new opportunities to consider introducing far more flexible working, allowing all staff to balance work and outside responsibilities more appropriately. If this momentum is maintained, with other steps, there is a real prospect of retaining more female talent and improving gender imbalances across firms.

Natalie Runyon is director for enterprise content & talent, and culture & inclusion strategist at Thomson Reuters: thomsonreuters.com

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