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According to Merit?: Take stock of diversity initiatives

Every Issue

Cite as: April 2011 85(4) LIJ, p.86

Law firms would do well to follow the Australian Stock Exchange’s lead on gender diversity.

The Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) is to be applauded for its leadership and action in promoting gender diversity at senior levels in corporate Australia.

As of 1 January this year, all ASX listed entities are required to:

  • establish and disclose a diversity policy that includes measureable objectives for achieving gender diversity;
  • conduct and disclose an annual board assessment of the measurable objectives and progress in achieving them; and
  • disclose the proportion of women in the whole of the organisation, at senior executive levels and on the board.

Law firms should adopt similar initiatives, not just to address the yawning gender gap at the partnership level but also because it makes business sense.

Research suggests that gender diversity on boards is associated with better financial performance and ensures greater decision-making rigour.1 Increased female participation at all levels throughout organisations is also found to positively impact the whole economy.2

These and other similar findings are relevant to all organisations – including law firms. And with law firm profits increasingly under pressure,3 surely the promise of better financial performance has encouraged law firms to take positive action on gender diversity?

Well, to date, no.

In the latest Australian Financial Review partnership survey, women accounted for just 22.4 per cent of all new partners appointed in the six months to June 2010, down from 27.6 per cent in the six months to June 2009. The arguments that women will progress through the ranks of law firms over time, given that there have been more females than males recruited into law firms since the eighties, have been firmly dispelled.4

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has called for “structural reform” to boost the number of women attaining partnership; specifically, affirmative action strategies. However, it may take a little longer for the legal fraternity to embrace and implement affirmative action than Ms Broderick, and organisations such as Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL), would desire.

Remembering that the longest journey began with a single step, let us suggest the following – less controversial and more immediate – steps that law firms can take.

Report on gender diversity

Law firms should be encouraged to adopt the ASX diversity reporting guidelines. Such reporting should be a prerequisite of membership of the government legal panel.

Embrace gender diversity

Law firms should be encouraged to not only report on gender diversity, but to also embrace it. Positive steps include:

  • engaging the partners/leaders on the importance of diversity;
  • setting targets and benchmarking your current position;
  • linking performance and remuneration to the achievement of diversity targets;
  • applying ongoing change management strategies to achieve cultural change;
  • reviewing your firm’s recruitment and promotion processes;
  • and critically:
  • offering part time work and other flexible work practices; and
  • teaching partners how to better manage those working flexibly.

Offer and manage flexible work arrangements

Research undertaken by VWL suggests that one of the main obstacles to female participation in law firms (and, thus, lack of promotion to partnership) is the lack of meaningful flexible work.5

The research found that persistent myths surround flexible work, including that:

  • clients, peers and support staff would not support such flexible work arrangements;
  • flexible work could not be undertaken in transactional or litigation practices; and
  • those seeking part-time work did not wish to progress their career.

Law firms need to address these myths and expose them as such, which will take time. More immediately, however, partners can help flexible work arrangements flourish by better managing and supporting lawyers working flexibly. To this end, VWL has developed a guide to managing lawyers with flexible work arrangements called Do you manage? (see http://bit.ly/fEwuTs).

These are small steps indeed for tremendous reward, whatever your perspective: improved gender diversity and fatter profits.

AMANDA STEVENS and ALINA HUMPHREYS are members of the Victorian Women Lawyers’ Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are their own and may not be shared by the VWL or their employer.

1. Insync Surveys and Gender Worx, Gender Agenda: Unlocking the power of diversity in the boardroom, based on the views of 849 directors on 105 Australian and New Zealand boards.

2. Goldman Sachs JBWere, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The economic case for increasing female participation, November 2009.

3. “Seismic change to shift legal scene forever”, The Australian, 17 December 2010.

4. Charlesworth, S and Campbell, I (2010). Scoping Study for Lawyers Attrition Study. Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT University, Melbourne. This recent Victorian research, which examines data from 2008, shows that significantly more women than men between the ages 20 and 30 hold practising certificates (1000 women compared to 600 men). Between the ages of 30 and 40, the number of female solicitors in private practice dives sharply; at age 40, there are 500 women and approximately 1100 men. This initial study was commissioned by VWL.

5. LIV and VWL, Bendable or Expendable? (2006) and VWL, A 360ยบ Review: Flexible Work Practices (2005). See http://bit.ly/gMoKwR.

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