by David Head*

The problem of gender discrimination, and in particular the difficulty that women have in being seen and treated as equals in a senior leadership context, is an enduring one. It manifests itself in many forms, some overt, some less so.

The disparity in hourly rates between men and women in big law firms is symptomatic and featured in an interesting article on this site (Big data reveals big gender inequality.. 6th May). This is a familiar problem in law firms as well as in the broader professional services world. Other familiar problems which I come across include: the difficulty that women of ‘a certain age’ have in being taken seriously as leadership material; the continued over dependence of firms on billings and chargeable hours in assessing partnership potential; and the persistence of history and tradition in framing decisions, at the expense of some talented females who would like to play more influential roles in their firms.

In some cases the problems are ubiquitous and have common causes within and outside of the profession.  In others the problems are more specific to many law firms, which will need to drag themselves into the 21st century quickly if they are to remain competitive. Of course some firms are better than others and leaders reading this article may choose to reflect on their department’s gender mix and leadership ratios before evaluating their own performance in this context.

Peninah Thomson in her work Women and the New Business Leadership, explains that women tend to be more independently minded and therefore less likely to tow the line and agree unconditionally with their male counterparts. For Thomson, male dominated boards are often characterised by ‘groupthink’ and males are more likely to play that game. I have certainly witnessed how women who do not follow the CEO or senior partner’s diktat can be held back in their careers. The irony, and in my opinion the cost to business, is that it is precisely this independence of thought which is most needed at board and partnership levels.

CBI President Sir Roger Carr has commented “Greater diversity improves atmospherics, dynamics and decision-making … businesses can only secure the best available individuals if they look at the widest pool of candidates.”

The number of women tends to get fewer as you look further up the hierarchy in most organisations and this is by no means limited to the legal profession. For example the number of female CEOs of large global corporations is somewhere near to 5%. Amongst the UK law firms, women make up only roughly 17% of partners with only one female senior partner (Penelope Warne at CMS Cameron McKenna) within the top 20 firms and one CEO (Sonya Leydecker at Herbert Smith Freehills). Women are better represented in some of the support functions, such as IT and Finance but even here there is an imbalance.

There are many societal reasons for this, which in no particular order include male-dominated business cultures, some women’s reluctance to return to work after having children, less need on the part of some women to place ambition above all else, and good old fashioned  gender stereotyping. This includes how woman perceive themselves, as well as how society perceives their roles and the two are of course mutually reinforcing.

These explanations are however no longer good enough, particularly when you see the difference an inspirational leader can make to the success or otherwise of an enterprise. Apple clearly thinks that this is so, and has been prepared to pay Angela Ahrendts a $68 million golden hello to prove it. The legal profession would do well to take note. For many aspiring female lawyers a career in commerce and industry or banking and the ultimate prize of a General Counsel appointment, will continue to be seen as more appealing than partnership. These roles generally offer more flexibility, particularly for ambitious woman who aspire to work in a challenging and rewarding professional environment with enough flexibility to bring up a family.

Rachel Jacobs, Global General Counsel of Macmillan Science & Education commented “I did not leave private practice due to any particular gender issues. I was very happy at the firm and felt I was on the partnership track. On reflection however, it is certainly true that female partners were thin on the ground and aspirational role models were limited. When I considered my longer term career options and asked myself some of the harder questions, the role of partner started to look less appealing. I found it difficult to visualise how I would achieve a fulfilling and challenging career where my contribution to the overall success of the business was measured by the quality of output rather than the quantity of input in terms of billable hours.”

When asked what it was about the role at Macmillan which was so appealing, Jacobs offered the following “It is hard to see how I could have achieved such a fulfilling career in private practice. I work for an inspirational female CEO (Annette Thomas) who is herself the mother of four children and understands some of the pressures of being a mother and senior leader. The culture is open and inclusive and I enjoy working in a collaborative, creative global enterprise. Although the hours are still long and the job comes with the pressures you would expect at executive level, crucially I have sufficient flexibility to perform professionally without sacrificing my family life.”

And she offers an interesting anecdote which underscores the point quite nicely. “I attended a board meeting with my nine week old son in my arms. Having him with me did not detract from the content of the proposal I was presenting or from my ability to deliver it effectively. I could not have imagined anything like that happening in a law firm.”

So, if this is what the law firms are up against in retaining their best female talent what are the solutions and how should partners go about addressing them?

The first point is surely an attitudinal one. Whilst some of the firms are genuinely inclusive and meritocratic, many more are not. If there is a Dickensian feel to some of these firms it is not a co-incidence and they will need to raise their game if they are to continue to compete in a more crowded market for legal services.

Modernisation of attitudes and the look and feel of the firms is one answer but it is the substantive changes and policies which are effective and actionable that will make most difference. Women who aspire to partnership will need to see that it is a level playing field and not just be told that this is so. The firms need to continue to move away from the over-reliance on narrow assessment criteria – namely fees – when evaluating leadership talent and place greater emphasis on broader management skills. For example, women often have high levels of Emotional Intelligence (EI) relative to their male counterparts and this can make them more rounded managers and leaders as well as extremely effective in relation to client management. This needs to be recognised and embraced and specifically, more women need to be promoted to partnership and senior leadership roles.

The firms also need to invest more in training and developing their people and place greater emphasis on the psychological contract they have with their employees of both genders. They will only achieve this by investing more fully in them, in a broader sense than teaching them to be better lawyers. They need to have more structured management development and mentoring programmes, and to deliver flexible working practices, rather than just paying lip service to them. In all likelihood partnership will always entail long hours but by being more flexible in their approach to this, the firms will have a better chance of retaining their highest performing females, who in turn will become great role models for the next generation of female lawyers.

Generation Y of both sexes are far more likely to vote with their feet if they feel that they are not being looked after or that they are not working a modern progressive culture. There has been a tendency within the firms to ignore the problems of gender inequality for too long and I have heard expressions such as ‘ there is nothing wrong, billings are unaffected regardless’ and worse ‘its women who are driving the agenda and women only groups are creating the impression of closed shops’. If the law firms want to continue to attract and retain some of the top talent they will need to raise their game, particularly although by no means exclusively with regard to gender equality and the inclusion and openness which this requires. Equally, female leaders will need to continue to be brave and engaged in order to help to drive the agenda.

* David Head is a mentor and coach with business performance consultants and executive coaches Accelerating Experience. He is currently writing a book on career management and change called The Art of the Possible which will be published later this year. David can be contacted at david.head@acceleratingexperience.com