FOR MORE than a decade, the majority of law graduates have been women. But they are failing to move up the profession’s ranks as it was once assumed they would. Clare Buttner reports
Since the 1990s women have made up the majority of law graduates, yet the percentage of female partners in Australian law firms remains at around 20 per cent.
In the UK it is 23.4 per cent and the rates in the US it is a low 17.3 per cent. A survey carried out last year found that in Australia’s largest law firms the highest proportion of female partners is 26 per cent and the lowest proportion is six per cent.
In a speech prepared for the Australian Financial Review Legal Reform Summit held this week, Sparke Helmore partner Gillian Davidson explain the trend, noting that women are disappearing.
“The suggestion is not that there is a pool of capable women who are sitting around in law firms being overlooked for promotion, rather it seems that they are not there,” she said.
Lee-May Saw, president of the NSW Women Lawyers Association agrees, and said that while the profession has opened up to women, it now it needs to look at keeping them — especially at the senior levels.
“Change is and has been happening. We are now at a stage where the discussion is focused on the number of women at the senior levels of the profession. It is extremely positive to see that most of the firms are generally doing what they can to support the advancement of women. But the discussion about how to advance women still needs to continue because it is essential to furthering change at senior levels,” Saw said.
Davidson told Lawyers Weekly that the business case for ensuring that women are adequately represented in the workplace is so strong that law firms should be alarmed at the numbers that are leaving.
“In my view these issues need to be discussed at the board level because it’s really business critical stuff”. Davidson said.
Studies have found that the benefits of having women in the workplace include that mixed groups are better at problem-solving than like minded ones. They have also suggested that companies with more women in senior management earned a higher return on equity. Also, women are better investors and consistently earn higher returns than men.
Aside from the benefits that law firms could be missing out on, it’s a well-documented fact that losing employees costs businesses money. It is estimated that the cost to business of losing a staff member is equal to the per annum salary expense of the role.
Davidson believes the three key things firms need to address to prevent this loss are: networking opportunities for women, adequate mentoring and the perception of flexible work practices.
“Mentors are essential for lawyers’ advancement in the firm, but women do not find mentors as readily as men do. One reason is that men, who represent 80 per cent of partners, are often reluctant to mentor women. Some are simply uncomfortable or feel that they lack the perspectives necessary to give women career guidance. Some worry about misperceptions that the relationship is more than professional or that comments they make might be misconstrued and lead to claims of sexual harassment,” Davidson said.
Davidson also believes that many flexible workplace policies have no real impact because firms marginalise the lawyers who use them.
“Our attitudes to flexible work are what need to change, and fast. But flexible work practices alone won’t deliver enough. We need to change the way we view people’s contribution to being less about hours/visibility, to being fundamentally about contribution and their impact on the business — this is the real challenge. There are so many ways to contribute. I think we will see greater deployment and utilisation of technology in more flexible work arrangements, which interestingly can also mean cost saving and improvement in efficiency,” she said.