Striving for Gender Balance in the Legal Profession

March 1, 2019

International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter, which promotes gender balance in boardrooms, government, media coverage, wealth, and the list goes on.  Gender balance is not only a women’s issue, but also business imperative as well as a very real issue for the legal industry.

Women lawyers continue to be underrepresented at the executive and senior partnership levels and are still less likely to be promoted to senior levels than men. It has been suggested that gender imparity is due to differences in women and men’s behaviour; perhaps, women have fewer mentors, less face time with managers, or are less proactive than men in talking to senior leadership.

While this may be true to some extent, a study published by Harvard Business Review showed that gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behaviour.
The Study

Harvard Business Review published A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work, which investigated whether differences in behaviour between women and men drove gender differences. The study used sensor technology to measure workplace behaviour of women and men at a large multinational firm where women were underrepresented in upper management. Email communication and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees was collected, and badges were used to track communication patterns for 100 employees over a four-month period.
Women and Men Are Treated Differently at Work

The study found no perceptible differences in the behavior of women and men. Instead, analysis of the data collected showed that “gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions.” Differences in promotion rates between women and men were due to how they were treated, not how they behaved. An obvious example is that women are perceived as less committed to work when they have children, whereas men are seen as more responsible.
The Case for Gender Balance in the Legal Profession

Significant research suggests that mandating a diverse slate of employees helps organizations make better decisions. The issue of attracting and retaining qualified women in the legal profession is not only a matter of gender justice, but also a necessity for maximizing business performance and competing for the best legal talent.

For further information, please see Competition for Legal Talent on the Rise: Another Reason for Progressing Women in Law.




The Solution

To advance women in the legal industry, law firms and legal departments need to address the problem of bias head-on. As the study suggests, gender inequality must be approached in the same way as any business problem: with hard data. Given the advances in technology, we can easily collect data; however, data relating to diversity needs to go beyond demographics.

Ensure the solution is tailored to your firm or organization’s specific problems by collecting data on the following questions:

  1. How is work being allocated and to whom?
  2. Are themes emerging from performance reviews?
  3. What factors are being considered for compensation?
  4. When are women leaving your firm/legal department?
  5. Do women behave differently or is their behaviour perceived differently?
  6. Does your organization’s culture limit the growth of women?

To combat bias, law firms and legal departments must collect the right data, put it to use, and continue to measure outcomes. Gender balance can drive results at all levels of an organization; however, it can only deliver results if it is systematically addressed throughout.

Diversity training can be especially crucial in identifying, addressing, and reducing gender bias in your organization.

Our Managing Partners, Dal Bhathal and Sameera Sereda, are qualified diversity trainers and administrators of the Intercultural Development Inventory, a cross-cultural assessment used to build intercultural competence to achieve diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes. If you are looking to implement effective bias-reduction programs and policies, please reach out to us for a confidential discussion today.

Dal Bhathal, Managing Partner


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