Women lawyers need better pathways into leadership

22 February 2022 By Lauren Croft
Women lawyers

Following the release of Australia’s latest gender equality scorecard, three BigLaw managing partners weighed in on what more can be done to advance women within the legal profession.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2020-21 employer census has revealed that the gender pay gap still exists across the country – with women still earning $25.8k less, on average, than men. 

Forty-two per cent of employers have reduced their pay gaps since 2020 – though the pay gap widened for 37 per cent of employers, and 21 per cent remained static. According to the gender equality scorecard, men are twice as likely as women to be in the top earnings quartile, earning $120,000 and above, while women are 50 per cent more likely than men to be in the bottom quartile, earning $60,000 and less.

Following the release of the report, Lawyers Weekly spoke to three BigLaw managing partners about what more the profession can be doing to address these issues.

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According to the report, despite women making up over 50 per cent of the workforce, only 20 per cent of chief executives are women. For the first time in the WGEA dataset, women comprised more than 41 per cent of all managers (up from 36 per cent in 2013). However, women still only account for less than one in five board chairs and one in three board members.

In light of these statistics, Hall & Wilcox managing partner Tony Macvean said that “it is extremely important that we provide women pathways into leadership”.

“Proactively look for opportunities for women to take on leadership roles – formal and informal. Address barriers to women progressing that may be systemic in nature – for example, caring responsibilities (children and parents), women returning to part-time roles after children and the long-term consequences of this,” he said.

“Proactively ensure that women are given as good as better opportunities – with clients, on major projects and high profile work. Investing in bespoke leadership programs, mentoring, sponsorship and policies and investing in a workplace culture that recognises the individual is also important.”

Norton Rose Fulbright chief executive partner Alison Deitz said that the firm’s Career Strategies Program “supports the development of junior women and ensures they feel valued”.

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“The program aims to instill confidence and provides advice for women at varying points on their career path,” she said.

“Pathways to leadership can be non-linear and it is important that women, as well as men, can take time out for family if that is what they wish to do and still meet their career goals. Our policies are aimed at ensuring there is no gap for men and women and that the opportunities are equal.”

Although addressing gender diversity is high on the agenda for many firms, NRF included, women are often “over-mentored and under-sponsored”, Ms Deitz added.

“Our new sponsorship program focuses on women in the pipeline to partner as well as junior partners. In addition, we have a bespoke global program for senior women lawyers called the ‘Career Strategies Program’ to support the career development and retention of the pipeline of women,” she said.

“This is an important part of our pursuit of a 40:40:20 gender diversity target, where leadership roles should be at a minimum of 40 per cent male, at a minimum 40 per cent female, and 20 per cent mixed genders.

“Every two years we run an in-depth D&I survey. Our most recent survey ran in late 2021, which enabled us to add specific questions about access to flexible work practices and our new hybrid working model. We asked our people to state whether they had autonomy over where and how their work was performed. The new hybrid working model is here to stay, so we need to keep assessing whether it is working properly for all relevant roles.”

Baker McKenzie national managing partner Anthony Foley added that “firms that have a credible action plan in place to tackle the underlying causes of the gender pay gap will be seen by employees as demonstrating real commitment to diversity and inclusion”.

“Narrowing the gender gap relies on a deeper understanding of its complex underlying causes and a commitment to strategies which go beyond issues of compensation. More specifically, addressing the gender pay gap depends upon achieving greater equity at senior levels by providing an environment in which all our people thrive and are recognised,” he said.   

The firm’s global gender targets are currently set at 40:40:20 — which applies to partners, senior professionals and candidate pools.

“We have set clear targets for improving gender equality outcomes. We have developed a robust evaluation process to ensure that women are recognised and considered for promotions,” Mr Foley said.

“Our firm also consciously considers gender equity in all firm committee appointments and have set a requirement that there should at all times be a representative of each gender on our management committees.”

Hall & Wilcox also has a number of initiatives in place, including the addition of an up to 26-week parental leave policy. 

Mr Macvean said that an awareness of the challenges surrounding equality in the workplace and a commitment to address them was key for BigLaw firms.

“This might include conducting an initial and then ongoing (annual) gender pay gap analysis, ensuring that the analysis includes partners (including equity partners) – where the gap is often greatest and developing an understanding and awareness of your own organisation and issues,” he said.

“Take any available immediate actions  for example, reviewing impacted positions and increasing remuneration where necessary. As part of performance review cycles (including partners), include a gender performance review and assess remuneration increases by gender. Have a process of reviewing remuneration offers for new starters – is there consistency on what is being considered across the firm?”

Post-pandemic, firms should be “embracing remote and flexible working in a professional environment”, added Mr Macvean.

“There is a much greater acceptance of women and men seeking purpose and balance in their life. Less of a delineation between male and female roles. Hopefully this has created a permanent shift in the division of unpaid domestic work, greater appreciation of parenting challenges and a greater involvement in caring from all parent(s). This provides a great opportunity to accelerate the redressing of imbalance,” he said.

“Firms need to embrace this opportunity, ensuring reverting to the status quo is actively resisted. We need to ensure that flexible work practices are embedded into our new hybrid way of working and maintaining our focus on issues of wellbeing.”

Post-pandemic, firms also need to be setting targets and implementing policies and processes to reach gender diversity targets, added Mr Foley.

“Reviewing remuneration (both salary and bonuses) across cohorts to ensure fair and equitable outcomes and contributions are duly recognised including confirming no biases and appropriate recognition for those working part time to reflect their contributions; as opposed to simply applying pro rata reductions,” he said.  

“Providing flexible work arrangements are important and even more so following the pandemic. The acceleration of flexible working through the pandemic has significantly reduced the negative perceptions around flexible working and has helped level the playing field. Programs that support staff mental health and wellbeing are also crucial to retain talent.”

Women lawyers need better pathways into leadership
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