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According to Merit?: How to stop a brain drain

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Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.86

Law firms are better at building “off ramps” than “on ramps” for women. 

According to IAG chairman Brian Schwartz, “If your leadership team isn’t representative of your marketplace, then you’re leaving a lot on the table”.1 Despite what really should no longer seem like a revelatory comment, the catalyst for Mr Schwartz’s statement, an Ernst & Young report “In his own words, the male perspective on gender diversity” (http://tinyurl.com/loz6eb6) demonstrates that it is still considered exactly that – a revelation.

In the report, chairman of Coca Cola Amatil, Investec (Australia) and Ingeus David Gonski makes the valid point that success will not necessarily be achieved by tinkering at the edges of current practice: “We need to redefine what a successful career is for both men and women. Many women think that if they want to take a bit of time off to have children, this will affect their careers negatively. They think it’s an either/or scenario. Whereas I think we’ve got to move towards a better, more imaginative tracking of a successful career.”

This was supported by the findings of a study on “on and off ramps” that found close to 40 per cent of women voluntarily leave their careers for some period of time.2 Not all women are motivated in this choice by the desire to have and be with their family but rather because they feel stalled in their careers, lack recognition by colleagues, and have limited control over careers and opportunities for advancement.3

The difficulty with this is that workplaces, especially the legal profession, are very good at building off ramps and making it difficult for women and men to juggle work and family responsibilities, but are not equally successful at building on ramps. In this context off ramps are the combination of circumstances which cause a woman not to work in her career of choice; whereas on ramps are opportunities for women to re-enter that career, while taking into account that she has not, for a period of time, participated in that career.

This was a theme echoed by Henry Davis York managing partner Sharon Cook at the Women in Law Leadership Summit.

She repeated the “woeful” partnership figures of 23 per cent female partners in large law, 18 per cent in mid tiers and 17 per cent in small firms, before going on to highlight that real change will only be achieved through cultural change. Ms Cook also gave some concrete examples of the cultural changes she believes will make a difference. They include not rewarding the culture of the so called ideal worker – indispensable to the firm and available 24/7. Rather, she recommends arranging meetings between 8am and 5pm, working remotely where feasible and not centering client entertainment around football and golf.

Concerns about a brain drain are also raised by the Ernst & Young report. There is a significant and latent brain drain happening in the Australian legal profession with women lawyers not remaining in the profession and not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers.

Rather than piecemeal solutions, we need fundamental change in the structure of law firms towards different, practical roles that recognise and support different definitions of success, career tracks and phases of employees’ working lives.

Some steps towards achieving this identified by the report that might be useful to consider going into the new year include:

  • Stop promoting clones – recognise the value of having people who think differently on the leadership team and across the organisation;
  • Make flexibility the norm for both genders – expected and accepted;
  • Support all employees in pursuing their passions outside work – recognise the value of a well-rounded employee; and
  • Ensure leaders are actively sponsoring women onto succession benches and advocating for them in progression discussions.

But perhaps the final word should go to Sharon Cook: “Belief barriers are very significant for women in the law. I believe we have to stop doubting ourselves”.



DR LIZ BISHOP is a lecturer at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University.

1. www.dailylife.com.au/business/in-australian-companies-some-men-fear-competing-with-women-20131025-2w5m2.html.

2. Hewlett, S, Luce, C, Shiller, P, Southwell, S (2005) The hidden brain drain: Off ramps and on ramps in women’s careers, Harvard Business Review research report, Centre for Work-Life Policy, New York.

3. Ronit Dinovitzer et al After the JD Study: First results of a national study of Legal Careers (2004) NALP Foundation and American Bar Foundation http://abfn.org/ajd.pdf.

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