Terms such as "maternity leave", and the badge of honour applied to those who "pull an all-nighter" to get a task done, may be symptoms of hidden gender biases preventing women from reaching law firm partnerships.
That's the opinion of Professor Bob Wood who, with the help of Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Westpac, ANZ, Santos and NSW Police, hopes to provide solutions to long-standing challenges preventing women from reaching leadership positions via The Gender Equality Project.
Researching the issue with the Melbourne Business School's Centre for Ethical leadership, Wood hopes his data will uncover subconscious "gender biases" associated with workplace language and behaviour.
From there, participants will aim to explore "game changers" that may promote more long-lasting change.
"People are saying there are some inherent mindsets that make it very difficult to make progress," Wood told Lawyers Weekly. "While we believe you've got to change individuals, unless we change the fundamental context - like the meaning of work and the meaning of success - we won't get anywhere."
Participants on the project attended a two-day planning workshop earlier this month and heard from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick on the extent of gender inequity in senior managerial positions.
Participant Christine Covington, a partner at Corrs and chair of the firm's Diversity Council, said she hopes the project can deliver some significant and sustainable workplace change.
"Some leaders in the field [of diversity] are beginning to say 'it's been twenty years, we've been trying, we've been beating the drum, we've been developing programs but we're just not getting there'," she said. "We're not getting the sustained improvement that we're looking for so we need to do something else, something different. "
Wood questioned if terms like "maternity leave" could contribute to hidden biases in the workplace, with women returning from such leave often finding their responsibilities diminished. "Why can't it simply be called a sabbatical?" he asked, suggesting that individuals who go on sabbaticals do not return to find their responsibilities to be drastically altered.
Wood also pointed to certain behaviours in the workplace, such as the notion of lawyers declaring they've "pulled an all-nighter" to get work completed, potentially stimulates bias against women and those who choose flexible work.
"They seem to think that working all-night is something to be proud of, rather then evidence of a total lack of ability to organise oneself," said Wood. "When you're caught up in it it's a bit like being in a club. It defines who your are. It's romantic that there's a sense of challenge. But it is misguided."
Wood added that billable hours and client allocation may also be underlying structural factors preventing women reaching senior positions and law firm partnerships.
He questioned whether or not lawyers and their firms would be willing to think radically about how their billing structures and work practices impact gender diversity at the senior level.
"The point is that there are probably some fairly basic things like that where people have to think differently. Lawyers might believe that's the most effective billing or incentive structure but that's a contestable view," he said.
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