This year more than ever before issues concerning gender diversity in law have received a lot of well deserved, and long overdue attention. The MeToo movement has sparked some very interesting debates and discussions.
It is generally accepted that women are relatively well represented in the industry until partner level (although this is not the case for women from minority groups especially those with disabilities and those of colour). The problem of gender diversity at a senior level raises a number of questions such as whether women are hired at the same rate as men, attrition rates amongst men and women at the senior level, whether women are represented fairly at each level and, whether women choose not to advance at a certain point because, for example, they feel an inability to balance family and work commitments or that there are not enough benefits for the personal cost.
What has been unanimously agreed upon is the fact that this problem can be minimised (but not eliminated) when female lawyers have a mentor or sponsor because it has been consistently proven to significantly enhance their career prospects and opportunities for promotion. Yet, female lawyers continue to experience considerably more difficulty than male lawyers in accessing mentors and sponsors willing to invest quality time to organically build meaningful professional relationships, which produce the same career benefits that they are intended to generate for men. The MeToo movement has unintentionally, but perhaps somewhat predictably, compounded this problem because senior men at law firms have become increasingly more reluctant to mentor junior women. What’s more, according to new research conducted for The Sunday Times Style by LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey, senior-level men are now twice as hesitant to mentor women than they are men, which creates real problems for women within what are already heavily male dominated environments operating within rigid and difficult to break through structures.
Like it or not, male leaders can accelerate a woman’s success at work and her ability to make more money. This is not because men make better mentors than women but that, generally
speaking, the workplace and particularly law firms were created by men for men.
Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of LeanIn.org describes the MeToo movement as “very net positive” because “a lot of really good guys are shying away from women”. This is a regrettable step in the wrong direction and one which will hurt many very talented female lawyers’ careers, particularly for those at a mid-level in their career and steps must be taken to resolve this. Ensuring that confidence and trust is restored in male-female professional relationships should be addressed openly and as a priority at all law firms with the discussions starting at the top.
There are many ways that mentoring can remain powerful, effective and long lasting. For a start, women and men need to have equal access to credible mentors. This can easily be taken for granted and often finding a mentor with whom one can naturally develop a mentoring relationship depends on finding the right moment, for example, at a corporate golf day.
A better awareness of this would not only greatly help female junior lawyers to forge successful mentoring relationships but, also have the opportunities to find them. It’s also important that firms acknowledge the ‘reluctant male syndrome’ particularly in the light of the MeToo movement. Ensuring that mentors stamp out double standards is important; choosing to meet mentees at the same places, at the same times, is important. Choosing breakfast over lunch or dinner and avoiding alcohol is always a good start with all mentee relationships and for mentoring groups events should be of equal appeal to men and women, at manageable times, to encourage maximum participation from all concerned.
To maximise the impact that powerful mentors can have, having several mentees for shorter times can spread the benefits and ensure that a greater cross-section of the firm’s talent is supported. For example, women of colour, women with disabilities, women with families etc. will ensure not only a better distribution of support but also that senior members of management and/or a law firm partners develop a greater understanding of the complexity behind why women (from all backgrounds) struggle to reach the same partner platforms as easily as their male counterparts. Mentors can also be invaluable to assist individuals to leverage their experience, training and relationships in order to pursue better opportunities externally. Pursuing opportunities for promotion, particularly external opportunities, are as much about confidence as they are credentials. External hiring rates for women and men at the junior and senior associate levels are almost equal according to a McKinsey & Co report ‘Women in Law Firms’ published in 2017. But – and this is certainly the case in our experience – men are more than twice as likely to be hired for a non-equity/counsel level position.
At the equity partner level, external hires are more than three times more likely to be men than women and this certainly supports our experience as a specialist search firm specialising in senior law firm moves in London. We are often alarmed by how small the pool of available women is and we attribute this to many factors including women’s expectations for promotion and progression. Women want promotion to the next level as much as, or even more, than men but feel less able, less confident and often less excited about pursuing them.
For these reasons, we continue to remind our clients to ensure they pursue recruitment strategies that are inclusive, dynamic with ambitious growth agendas. We also pursue all of our partner recruitment projects with these sentiments in mind. We see our role as instrumental to assisting law firms to breakdown the outdated power structures. By using smarter strategies and presenting powerful pitches on behalf of clients and when representing candidates, we continue to attract a more diverse variety of people getting into senior leadership positions and will do what we can to help this trend continue.
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