Getting Gender Diversity right in Law Firms

HR and legal experts from across the UK recently convened at Simmons & Simmons Law firm in London to discuss the issue of gender diversity in the legal sector, almost 100 years since women were introduced to working in law firms. The event was chaired by Jennifer Liston-Smith from My Family Care who hosted the event with legal & compliance consultancy FIDES.

A series of high profile, expert speakers shared insight into the issues surrounding gender inequality, and the measures that can be taken to resolve this concern. Philip Goodstone, Head of Law at EY began proceedings and spoke about the need to view the issue as an important, long term objective which needs to be dealt with as such: “Diversity and inclusiveness is not an initiative, it is a strategic priority. This is about a serious, long-term commitment to change.”

A common theme discussed throughout the morning was the need for senior management to accept responsibility and be held accountable for ensuring their workplace is inclusive and diverse, as Mr Goodstone explained:

“It’s about leadership. Are the leaders in your organisation responsible for and serious about change? At EY we have a senior partner whose is responsible for D&I strategy and the activities that support that strategy.”

Another important topic that was touched upon by each of the day’s experts was the importance of education in the workplace, with particular emphasis on how to recognise and prevent unconscious bias, where managers are favouring men at certain times or for certain tasks without realising they’re doing it.

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz, Co-Founder and Chair of Women In Law London (WILL), explained:

“There is a need for ongoing unconscious bias training both for recruitment and retention purposes. The classic example being a mother who has recently returned from Maternity Leave who may not always get the most exciting work with key clients if there are misconceptions about her ability to travel or work irregular hours. Coaching for both manager and individual can help recognise the bias and address it.”

WILL are an organisation for associate-level female lawyers, who aim to promote and engage the next generation of woman leaders in law. Ms. Szczetnikowicz told the audience that, according to their recent membership survey carried out in conjunction with Dr. Alexandra Budjanovcanin of Kings College London Management School, the most commonly cited reason for women joining her organisation, is to build confidence. She also explained in detail, the subtle ways in which WILL has learned that gender can affect a career in law:

“Businesses need to be transparent about their promotion processes and seek to mark against performance criteria that are not inherently gendered in approach.”

Joanna Perry, Corporate Responsibility & Diversity Manager at Simmons & Simmons, was the last to speak and explained some of the steps taken at Simmons & Simmons to help address the issue.

She said:

“We don’t have quotas here but we do have aspirational targets, which we find are really important and keep us focused. Our target is for women to make up at least 30% of all Partner and Managing Associate promotions in our organisation. We exceeded that last year. In 2016 we also introduced mandatory inclusive leadership and unconscious bias training for all UK partners and colleagues.”

Prior to a lively Q+A, Philip Goodstone spoke of an instance he had experienced during his career:

“I remember a time I had three candidates I thought would be suitable for a role, two men and one woman. The two men would regularly be at my desk or engaging me, asking me about the role – but it was the third candidate who intrigued me as she was outstanding but never raised it with me. Eventually, I approached her and asked if she had thought about the role and she said she just wasn’t sure she was ready for it. Of course she was, but had I not raised it I could easily have made the wrong assumption that it was not a role she wanted.”

Whilst awareness is well and truly on the up, Ms Szczetnikowicz described a “disconnect between policy and culture”, identified by participants in the WILL survey. It is up to Law firms to now ensure that they’re putting policy into practice and making a difference in their organisations.

Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching at My Family Care, who organised the event said:

“Gender diversity in law is a huge problem, with warped perceptions and misunderstandings amongst senior management rife. However, it’s fantastic to see firms like Simmons & Simmons and EY, take the lead and really show what can be done if time is spent on crafting an environment where women are looked at in the same way as men. We hope the think tank event helped those HRs and legal firms to take stock of where they are and how they can improve in the long term.”

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