Make it Happen! What is your Firm Doing to Achieve Gender Equality?

Topics: Canada, Diversity, Law Firms

International Women’s Day was March 8. The theme for this year is: Make It Happen. Patricia Arquette must have known that when she advocated for gender wage equality during her acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for best supporting actress. Her heartfelt comments struck a chord with the audience (Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez in particular) as well as with viewers.

So, what is your firm, business, or law department doing to make gender equality happen? Do you have a formal diversity and inclusion strategy? Sixty-six percent of Canadian CEOs surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers report having a diversity and inclusion strategy in place, and gender imbalance often falls within the mandate of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I).

After all, while women and men have been going to law school in equal numbers since the early 1980s, men still make up more than 70% of equity partners in law firms across Canada, according to the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion.

My grossly over simplistic, non-academic explanation is that lawyers require networks of social and business connections to be successful. Most of the existing influential networks are populated by men. So, if you are a man, it’s easier to make friends/contacts in an existing influential network. Without interference, this structure will inherently self-perpetuate. Add in more complicating factors like maternity leaves, and, well, you know the rest.

The extent of gender imbalance across the business community is alarming:

There are (at least) three reasons why you should care about gender equality.

First, foremost, and most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Second, the business case has been made time and time again. For example, Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance (Catalyst, “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards”). As Antoinette Bozac wrote in a May 2014 column for Canadian Lawyer In-House: “Simply put, better ‘diversity and gender representation’ practices make for better boards, better organizations, and better economies.”

Third, if business does not voluntarily address it, government regulators are going to mandate it.

The United Kingdom, Norway, France, and Australia (to name a few) all have some level of government regulation in place to address gender imbalance in business. Quebec passed legislation in 2011 requiring equal representation of women and men of boards of state-owned enterprises.

“Comply or explain” was finally introduced for companies registered with the Toronto Stock Exchange effective Jan. 1, 2015. The Canadian rules require companies to provide annual disclosures regarding:

  • director term limits and other mechanisms of renewal of the board;
  • the number of women on the board and in executive officer positions;
  • targets regarding the representation of women on the board and in executive officer positions;
  • policies regarding the representation of women on the board;
  • the board’s or committee’s consideration of the representation of women in the director identification and selection process; and
  • the issuer’s consideration of the representation of women in executive officer positions when making executive officer appointments.

There have been some additional interesting recommendations from Canadian academics. For instance, law professor David Tanovich’s opinion piece in The Globe and Mail on Feb. 18, 2015 titled: “White, male lawyers should say ‘no’ to judicial appointments.” Wow — just imagine if a woman wrote that. Certainly makes “comply or explain” seem so much more… vanilla. (Yes, I’ve just seen 50 Shades of Grey.)

I’m taking this International Women’s Day as an invitation to make my own recommendations on things I believe firms can do to attract, retain, and advance women. My small contribution to “Make it Happen”:

  1. Know your organization. Find out what the differences are in compensation, billings, billable hours, non-billable hours, practice areas, elected and appointed leadership positions, and reasons for leaving between men and women. Being honest. Look at those differences. Are there structural disadvantages to women? For instance, do double the hours result in 10 times the compensation?
  2. Have mandatory (without actually calling it mandatory) ongoing education for your entire organization on D&I. Put the necessary resources into making the education useful and appropriate for the audience. Don’t assume women are inherently knowledgeable about issues involving gender imbalance. Just like birthing a baby doesn’t inherently make you a good parent, being a woman doesn’t automatically make you an expert in gender equality.
  3. Make attraction, retention, and advancement of women a standing agenda item with performance targets and metrics. Create your own “comply or explain” framework.
  4. Have clear, easy-to-understand maternity and parental leave policies (yes, for partners too). If you don’t have a policy, don’t draft one as your first pregnant lawyer is heading off on maternity leave. Ensure your policy retains some discretion—don’t make it too rigid. Are any men taking advantage of the parental leave policy? If not, ask and understand why. Maybe the policy (or the culture) needs improvement.
  5. Pay more attention to business development resources and opportunities. Are business development events targeted primarily around men’s interests? Even if they are not targeted that way, are there events with only men attending? Do men ultimately end up spending more of the firms’ business development budget? Are women getting the same opportunities to make meaningful connections? Try harder to have a woman attend each and every firm-sponsored business development event.

If you are considering holding, or even sponsoring, a male-only event, you may want to read McConaghie v. Systemgroup Consulting Inc., first. Sheryl McConaghie was the only female sales executive in a male-dominated industry. The employer decided to have a men-only client appreciation event. The human rights commission noted:

“By holding a customer appreciation event that excluded the applicant because of her gender, the respondent undercut the applicant’s ability to compete on the same playing field as her male peers. It did so without apparent consideration of how her male clients might perceive her exclusion or how it might damage her working relationships; and it did so in a male-dominated industry. In other words, its behaviour perpetuated the belief that supporting women sales professionals in interacting with clients is less valuable or important than supporting male sales professionals.”

Really, workplaces with greater equality are better for everyone. As Gloria Steinem put it: “the story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human beings.”

[This blog was originally posted on the Canadian Lawyer website. Canadian Lawyer is a publication of Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd.]