In June, Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) UK and UK research firm Acritas released findings from their research into the effectiveness of current organizational mechanisms that are being used to drive an increase in gender representation at the executive leadership ranks among law firms.
“Many law firms have accepted that there is a significant imbalance at the top of their structures that is not helping their business,” says Lucinda Case, Lead, Legal Professionals, Europe and sponsor for TWLL UK at Thomson Reuters. “They are responding to that by implementing changes to their strategies that should, given time, be a force for good.”
We sat down with Lisa Hart Shepherd, CEO of Acritas, to discuss the most notable findings and themes. Based on the research, eight factors correlated with greater success in gender diversity at senior levels based on probability:
- Ensuring there is representative balance of men and women working on all matters requiring a team;
- Ensuring also there is a representative balance of men and women in all pitches and RFPs;
- Having firm leadership reinforce gender diversity as a strategic priority in talk and action;
- Providing a board-level representative where a significant part of their role is focused on diversity;
- Tracking and analyzing gender diversity data through all levels;
- Analyzing gender diversity by practice;
- Taking a strong stance dealing with the behaviors contrary to diversity and inclusion policies and goals; and
- Using blind or semi-blind CVs to disguise gender.
The concept of the research was conceived at a TWLL board meeting last year following a conversation among the members in which they reflected on their own experiences related to the slow progress of gender diversity at the equity partner ranks and potential solutions.
“It just struck me that everybody had a different perspective, and I thought, ‘Well, if that’s the case in the room, people aren’t really sure what the problems are and aren’t really sure what the solutions are, then why don’t we do some research to try and see if we can find some statistical proof of what’s actually working and what’s actually leading to more gender diversity,” said Hart Shepherd.
Further encouragement came from Harvard Law School Professor David Wilkins, with whom Hart Shepherd had been collaborating. Wilkins sent her an article about how some diversity initiatives in other industries are actually adversely impacting progress in gender diversity.
When reviewing the results, what immediately stood out for Hart Shepherd was how hard participating firms were trying to fix this. On average, each firm had 25 different initiatives ongoing to improve their gender balance and diversity numbers.
Hart Shepherd was also encouraged at the effectiveness of mandating gender balance when it comes to matter and pitch teams to better head off bias and to make sure there is equal access to opportunities between women and men to gain key experiences in different types of work. In fact, clients can play a key role in enforcing this.
Another notable practice that was driving more gender diversity success was how to address ambiguous behaviors around bullying and harassment. Indeed, a recent survey by the International Bar Association revealed that “half of women lawyers and one-third of male lawyers have experienced bullying in the workplace.” Firms that trained their employees to identify situations of bullying and harassment and respond effectively to address the behavior promoted greater respect in the workplace and a more welcoming environment where women and other diverse lawyers can thrive.
Interestingly, the research also highlighted initiatives that correlated with lower promotion of women. For example, mentoring programs dedicated to preparation for partnership without structure and training was one of them. The key words there are “without structure and training,” notes Hart Shepherd, admitting that this revelation was a real surprise to her because she’s always been adamant about the importance of mentoring at key stages of a lawyer’s career.
Hart Shepherd shared an example of an attorney up for partner whose mentor told her that she would be better off succeeding as a partner if she could find a husband who was willing to stay at home. “Women shouldn’t be having to make that choice between work and wanting to see their children during the week,” she says. “Though the advice can be well-meaning, it is actually off-putting.”
Women-only networks were identified as the other commonplace initiative that was negatively correlated with gender diversity in senior roles. Because the majority of the individuals in leadership, management, and other senior roles are male, the exclusive nature of the women’s initiatives can create backlash and feelings of ill will, deepening the silos.
Women’s networks that are open to men positively correlated with increases in gender representation within leadership ranks. “Men need to be there to see the problems,” Hart Shepherd explains, adding that often, men may be unaware of their own biases until they are pointed out. The more men can be part of that conversation and be educated, the more they can help bang the drum and call it out when they see it, she notes.
Indeed, Hart Shepherd’s expertise in this area is deep and wide, and in talking to numerous women over the span of her career, she understands that both genders want the same thing — an equal chance to succeed. “Both men and women want fair opportunity to be able to get in front of clients and work on a range of matters,” she says. “Giving everybody that fair opportunity means that there is an equal chance to succeed and be promoted.”
She is excited that this report is providing necessary insights that could help create equal access to opportunity for both women and men.