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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Access to power: Dethroning the Queen Bees of law firms

Access to power: Dethroning the Queen Bees of law firms


Patricia Gillette considers how firms can break free of the hive structure by eliminating the problem of 'Queen Bees'

The Queen Bee. She is the most powerful female in the hive. And, if another Queen Bee is born, that female either leaves the hive or the Queen Bee kills her. That is how
the Queen Bee maintains control; that is how
she keeps her power. She has to act this way because the structure of the hive will not allow more than one Queen Bee.

As in the bee hive, in most law firms there
are only one or two women who have risen to positions of power, and, like Queen Bees, they think they should be the only women in the room and have pulled the ladder up behind them. While they have the power to allow other women to enter leadership positions, they choose not to do so. Instead, they sit comfortably at the table where decisions are made and do nothing to advance other women - or, even worse, they oppose or sabotage efforts to change policies that might increase the power
of women coming up through the ranks.

Yet the similarity between the behaviour
of Queen Bees in hives and women in law
firms is confounding because these particular women appear to be acting counter to type. Study after study shows that women in leadership positions are, generally, viewed as being collaborative and inclusive team players. Data gathered by the Pew Research Center showed that in business women were seen as better at being honest and ethical, providing fair pay and benefits, and mentoring employees. So, what causes the Queen Bees in firms to keep other women from joining the upper echelons
of management and leadership?

Coveted position

One answer is grounded in the historical way
in which firms have structured their choices for leaders. It is no secret that the current selection process appears to limit the number of women 'allowed' to enter the rooms where power is wielded. Actually, the number seems to be capped at one or two. How else do we explain that in firms of hundreds of lawyers so few women are in positions of real power? Are
so many women unqualified to lead?

Of course not. There has to be something
else, other than skill and ability at work,
deciding who is allowed to become part
of the leadership ranks.

A successful female lawyer, who identifies herself as a Queen Bee, said the following when asked about her failure to support other women: 'If you are given only limited opportunities to run with the boys, you are more likely to protect your spot than find ways to share it.'

She was speaking from the perspective
of a woman who felt she had benefited from opportunities opened up to her by virtue of her firm's quest for diversity in leadership. And yet she knew those opportunities were limited. So, when she was anointed with one of the higher-level leadership spots, she protected her 'victory', which meant she was not prepared to put another woman into the mix, as that woman would then compete for the coveted position she had just won.

This behaviour - women treating other women as competitors rather than colleagues - is understandable but undesirable. And, unlike the hive structure, firms are not required to have only a few women in positions of power.

Bias-free selection

Imagine what would happen if firms considered people for positions of power truly without regard to gender, if firms could recognise and take steps to eliminate the unwritten rules, the real or implicit bias that makes them stop looking for qualified women once the one or
two 'women's seats' are filled.

How would we do that? We could start by borrowing tactics that corporations have been using for years to integrate the upper echelons of leadership:

  • Make the qualifications for the selection
  • of leaders transparent by specifying the personal qualities and skill sets desired
  • for people who want to be in leadership;
  • Make the leadership selection process transparent: no more black boxes but an open disclosure of who makes what decisions on future candidates for leadership positions and how those decisions are made;
  • Broaden the pool of people who can nominate potential candidates for leadership positions: allow and encourage self-nomination and solicit input from those outside the traditional pools of power;
  • Use implicit bias training to warn people of the inherent tendency to choose people who look like them;
  • Check the selection decisions that are ultimately made for patterns of bias or discrimination: if only two women are identified out of hundreds of women partners, ask why;
  • Consider ways in which to mask the identity of the candidates so that decisions are made on the merits of the individual, not what they look like; and
  • Institute formal succession planning for leadership positions so that potential leaders are identified and groomed to move into positions of power, then monitor this succession planning for bias.

Demand for integration

Along with these systemic changes, women
too must change: we must realise that the most common way people give up power is by not knowing they have it. And women have been doing that for years: ceding power by not exercising it. The time has come for women in firms to band together and demand integration of the leadership ranks, using women's initiatives, clients, and powerful male allies
to deliver that message to the existing power structure.

Women also have to be willing to self-promote, to stretch themselves to positions of leadership, and to raise their hands and ask for power. Men already do these things; it is time for women to do the same.

The argument for bringing women into the rooms where decisions are made is easy. There is an abundance of research and data showing that organisations with diverse teams in leadership positions are more successful financially, have better returns on investment, and are more socially responsible and ethical. A 2007 study by the non-profit organisation Catalyst, ‘The bottom line: Corporate performance and women’s representation on corporate boards’, showed a link between the representation of women on the board and a strong performance at Fortune 500 companies.

We also know that the next generation of lawyers expect women and men to be treated equally, because that is how they were raised. So, as they rise through the ranks, millennial women (and men) will vote with their feet if the number of leadership opportunities continues to be determined by gender. Bringing diversity into the leadership ranks of our law firms, therefore, is not only the right thing to do, it is critical to ensuring the future of our profession.

The hive structure requires the behaviour and choices of the Queen Bee. It cannot be changed. But the same is not true for firms. We have the power to implement policies that will get us closer to a gender-blind selection process for the top positions in our firms – a process that will give all qualified lawyers, regardless of gender, an equal chance to move into positions of power. And by eliminating the scarcity of access to power, we may hasten the end of the law firm Queen Bees. SJ

Patricia Gillette is a former partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a keynote speaker on gender equality and diversity in law firms