‘Cultural change cannot continue at glacial pace’: Female CEOs increase but hit new low in chair numbers

‘Cultural change cannot continue at glacial pace’: Female CEOs increase but hit new low in chair numbers

10 November 2021 By Naomi Neilson
WLANSW president Renee Bianchi

Although there has been a reduction in the number of firms promoting only men into leadership positions, including into CEO roles, a new report by Women Lawyers Association NSW found that despite women making up more than half of the legal profession, the number of female chairs fell to a new low over the last two years.

Despite the legal profession hitting a milestone in its announcement that there are more female solicitors than men, this is yet to extend into leadership levels. A new report by the Women Lawyers Association of NSW (WLANSW) found that over the 2020-21 period, leadership in law firms remained largely male-dominated.

In comparison to the 2018-19 data, the number of female chairs fell from eight to six while male chairs rose from 76 to 87. This new low is a “real concern” as it indicates progress is trending downwards and “suggests that some recent gains may have been lost” during the two-year period. Out of the six firms with a female chair, three reported that she was the only board member who was female.

WLANSW president Renee Bianchi commented: “Women have made up more than half of all law graduates for some decades. This should have filtered through to greater numbers of women in senior leadership roles and has not. More work needs to be done. Cultural change cannot continue at a glacial pace if we wish to retain and promote greater numbers of women across the legal profession.”


In more positive news, firms with female CEOs increased from six to 11, and female directors increased from 24 per cent to 26.5 per cent overall. In partnership ranks, there was a marked reduction in the number of firms where women make up less than 20 per cent of partners and, comparatively, the report noted an increase in the number of firms with more than 30 per cent women partners.

The difficulty in this, WLANSW noted, is identifying whether women are achieving equity partnership. Out of 12 firms surveyed in the report, overall 30 per cent of partners were women. However, 26 per cent of partners were equity, and 39 per cent were salaried. Of the 86 part-time equity partners, 40 were women.

“In this group of firms, a significant number of partners were working part-time, and that was spread between both equity and non-equity, and female and male partners, although female part-time partners comprise the majority of all part-timers,” the report commented on these findings. “It is pleasing to see that working part-time appears not to be an impediment to being an equity partner.”

Although congratulatory of the firms that have made improvements, WLANSW said that it would like to see more publicly committing to yearly targets for partnership admission. Its 2020-21 dataset find a continuing reduction in the number of firms only promoting men to partnership during their rounds of promotions, and 23 firms over the last four years averaged over 40 per cent promotions during the same rounds.

Additionally, WLANSW said leading firms had taken practical measures to address the structural and cultural impediments to the retention and progression of women. This includes targets for female partners and at board levels, focusing on pay equity and flexibility, commitment to law council briefings and, more importantly, adoption of the Law Society of NSW’s Charter for the Advancement of Women.


“Whilst the legal profession, along with everyone else, has been dealing with the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is encouraging that our data shows continual improvement in the number of women in senior leadership positions in the profession and a reduction in firms promoting only men to partnership.

“We hope that the flexible work practices that have been adopted through the pandemic will continue and this will lead to greater diversity,” Ms Bianchi said.

‘Cultural change cannot continue at glacial pace’: Female CEOs increase but hit new low in chair numbers
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