The World Bank estimates that current disparities in female earnings translate to potentially $172trn in lost income worldwide. While that is of course a global figure and one that spans countries and sectors, it is clear that gender inequality in the workplace is a real and sizeable challenge that needs to be addressed. So how do law firms fare?
The good news is that many legal firms have made an active effort in recent years to pursue gender equality within their organisations – whether it be focusing on equal representation at all levels of the company or democratising opportunities for advancement across the board. However, recent research suggests that much more can and must be done to address the underlying issues.
Scale of the problem
According to the Law Society of England and Wales, despite efforts to address gender disparity across the sector, the senior levels of law firms still do not reflect the fact that the industry has a significant female majority at the point of entry.
While such disparities are well documented for solicitors, including the fact that over half (56%) of junior associates in law firms are women, only around one-quarter (24%) of equity partners are female, it’s vital to remember that the issue extends to other departments within firms too, such as finance and technology. Naturally, there can be variety across different functions, with women making up greater portions of teams or even a majority in certain departments, but this should not be viewed as balance overall.
Not only is gender disparity within firms unfair, but there is also another reason why such inequality is not right – it simply does not make good business sense. As noted by McKinsey, organisations in the top quartile for gender diversity have been shown to be 15% more likely to achieve above-average financial returns.
Pushing diversity up the agenda
So, both the problem and the prize for solving it are clear. However, new research by Totum Partners has found that 29% of law professionals surveyed said they thought that diversity (or the lack thereof) was a barrier to progression at their firm.
On top of this, a further 29% surveyed said they thought their firm did not connect diversity, equality, and inclusion to broader policies around sustainability and ESG – something that also does not make good business sense if we consider just how many clients are now insisting on robust ESG policies when choosing which firms to instruct.
So what can law firm leaders do to help ensure greater gender equality at the top level of the legal profession?
To begin with, leaders must call out when they see and hear attitudes about career progression being in conflict with women’s assumed domestic and family roles. For example, women are often asked how a promotion will impact their family life and should not have to answer such questions.
Moreover, if firms are so concerned about the ability of their team members to balance work and family commitments, they should make sure that they have progressive, flexible working policies – something that thanks to pandemic-induced home working has of course been shown to be much more possible than perhaps previously thought.
But at a deeper level, firms can also make sure they tackle bias against women wherever it appears. As the Thomson Reuters Institute/Acritas study noted, much of the bias reported is believed to be largely unconscious. Thankfully, there are ways to combat this – not only through better education and training, but also by changes such as removing gender-identifying details from candidates’ CVs, using gender-balanced assessment panels, and requiring gender diversity in pitches and RFPs.
It is incredibly positive to see progress being made across the legal sector in prioritising gender equality, but it is vital the industry does not become complacent. The figures speak for themselves – there remains considerable work to be done to make real gender equality a reality for law firms. Those that fail to adapt will not only find themselves missing out on potential increased revenue, but they will also find themselves missing out on top talent.