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Unlocking the legal leadership gap: A rethink of women’s development programs

By strategically focusing on the design and implementation of women’s leadership programs, giving priority to the development of BQ skills, and addressing the other systemic barriers, legal leaders can work towards finally closing the leadership gender gap and enabling women in the law to reach their full potential, writes Michelle Redfern.

user iconMichelle Redfern 19 April 2024 Big Law
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Women’s leadership development programs are often used as strategies to close the leadership gender gap in firms worldwide. However, over my four decades of experience in various organisations, I’ve observed a concerning trend: many of these initiatives fail to address the root causes of gender inequality in the workplace, including in legal workplaces.

Despite comprising 55 per cent of solicitors, women face persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles within law firms. This article explores the shortcomings of current women’s leadership programs and the urgent need to prioritise essential business skills development and address systemic barriers to close the leadership gender gap in the legal profession.

How gender equal is the legal profession?

 
 

The 2022 National Profile of Solicitors shows that women comprise 55 per cent of the profession, an increase of 2 percentage points from the 2020 result.

While women now dominate the overall representative numbers in the legal profession, their numbers thin significantly as women lawyers ascend the career ladder. In 2022, it was reported that less than a third of women were leading law firms (29 per cent are partners/principals.) The remaining 71 per cent of women solicitors are employees, while this figure is only 46 per cent for men who are solicitors.

To close the leadership gender gap in the legal profession, leaders must treat this as a strategic business priority, with clear goals, strategies, plans, resources, and accountability mechanisms in place.

What causes the legal leadership gap?

Understanding the three major causes of the gender gap is essential; in brief, they are:

  1. A lack of progressive policy and practices.
  2. Managers’ mindsets and behaviours.
  3. The perception of women’s skill sets and roles.
While HR departments may play a role in addressing some of these factors, the onus is on all organisational leaders to create meaningful and sustainable change.

What’s missing in women’s development programs?

One common mistake in women’s leadership programs is focusing on the “fixing women” approach. These programs solely target women through mentoring, conferences, and courses but often ignore the systemic barriers ingrained within organisational structures that prevent women from advancing.

A crucial aspect often overlooked in these programs is the need for women to develop and demonstrate essential business skills. Business intelligence (BQ) is a significant determinant of career success, comprising nearly 60 per cent of the criteria for senior and executive roles. However, BQ receives disproportionately little attention in development experiences aimed at women. When I ask women about their best career advice, they consistently report that less than 5 per cent of their advice focuses on these critical skills.

In case you’re wondering, BQ is business intelligence. In leadership, the leader who gets results rests on a foundation of competencies associated with business, strategic, and financial acumen.

You are recognised for your ability to lead and deliver outcomes that align with the firm’s strategic and financial objectives.

  1. Business acumen is understanding a firm’s overall health and performance. It means you know the business’s business – how it generates cash, achieves profitable growth, delights its clients, pleases shareholders, and has engaged, productive team members;
  2. Strategic acumen is the ability to develop and execute long-term plans for the firm or, if earlier in your career, you know where the firm is heading and what the big picture is; and
  3. Financial acumen is understanding a firm’s economic performance and the story that the numbers tell. You can read and analyse financial and performance metrics and organise your actions based on your understanding.
  4. Success orientation means a leader who exhibits various characteristics and behaviours focused on achieving goals, driving performance, and fostering a culture of success within their team and the broader firm.
What must legal leaders do?

When asked the question about what can be done in 2021, Danielle Kelly, the director of culture and inclusion at Herbert Smith Freehills, told Lawyers Weekly:

“There are many factors that feed into the under-representation of women in the partnership, and these include the structure of the legal profession and the typical timing for promotion to partnership, anachronistic views about ‘how work is done’ such that there can be an over-reliance on facetime and being available 24/7 – and related to this, the fact that some in the profession still view flexible work as the exception rather than the rule – such that many women (and some men) feel that they must choose between family and work. The factors underlying the under-representation of women at more senior levels in the profession compared to lower levels are complex and require adaptive thinking by law firm leaders to address the systemic and structural barriers that exist.”

Over nearly a decade, my work has informed me that targeted BQ leadership training for women has a significant impact. I know that of the women who ascend to the most senior positions, most had the opportunity to develop BQ skills in a targeted way. So, the adaptive thinking that Danielle Kelly recommends must include coaching, strategic mentoring, and other development experiences for women that specifically focus on developing and demonstrating BQ because, right now, that is missing for women.

By strategically focusing on the design and implementation of women’s leadership programs, giving priority to the development of BQ skills, and addressing the other systemic barriers, legal leaders can work towards finally closing the leadership gender gap and enabling women in the law to reach their full potential.

Michelle Redfern is the author of The Leadership Compass.