Women in the boardroom: What more needs to be done?


Clearly legal departments, whether private practice or in-house, and the profession as a whole need to do more if the legal sector is ever to achieve the pipedream of gender parity.

Tackling tokenism

Law firms across the globe have set targets for women on the board, with some implementing quotas for managerial positions.

“It would be naïve to say that men and women have an equal playing field in the present time. I believe that years of discrimination need an equal amount of years of redress to bring the situation to an equal playing field,” says Mahua Roy Chowdhury, founder and principal partner of India-based Royzz & Co, adding that quotas are the remedy to a problem that has existed for centuries.

“Quotas break the years of traditional thinking and force the system to change. I believe that for a certain span of time we do need quotas for women until the playing field truly becomes equal and women have the predisposed advantages that men do.”

Egon Zehnder’s report backs up the proposal.

“Countries that have seen the biggest improvements in board diversity are those that operate under some form of quota system,” says Charlie Beasley, a consultant at Egon Zehnder. “They are, however, not perfect as some countries do have quotas, such as Germany, Austria, Israel, and they aren’t meeting them.”

He adds that quotas aren’t the only solution—the UK doesn’t have a formal quota and but has made progress towards its board diversity targets (28% of board positions in the UK are held by women, compared with 20.4% globally).

Shwetasree Majumder, principal at Fidus Law, says: “I don’t think quotas are bad if you want to undo historical wrongs and give a poorly represented demographic a better shot.”

"Wouldn’t you want to be known as an empathetic law firm that values its employees, thinks about their comfort and has low rates of attrition?" - Shwetasree Majumder, Fidus Law

However, while many respondents cited quotas and targets as undertakings by their firms, some expressed critical opinions.

“Quotas are not a great idea, because no woman wants to be thought of as the ‘token’ woman who is only there because of the quota,” warns one respondent.

A separate respondent urges companies to set targets for board and partner diversity at more than token numbers.

“If it is more than token, it prevents firms picking the easy options—women with no children or with househusbands. It also prevents the ‘plucking out of the chorus’ syndrome where a single woman is advanced and used to show diversity while everyone else has to deal with an unchanged organisation,” they add.

The respondent also suggests that firms learn from the LGBTQ community and make sure that there are diversity champions among the senior men, so it is not always seen as women arguing for inclusion.

As the majority of senior partners and board members are men, it’s obvious that having men champion gender diversity is a good plan.

Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of recruiter CityCV.co.uk, adds: “We need to bring men on board as diversity partners and champions. That means having open and candid conversations where we share the data and research that shows how greater diversity benefits us all.”

In addition to engaging men in diversity, it’s important not exclude them.

Christine Armstrong, author of “The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish)”, warns that some of the steps that have been taken to support women have also accidentally alienated men, who feel excluded from coaching and mentoring support. They often say that flexibility isn’t something that is accessible for them: “it’s just for mums”.

Breaking down barriers

Women face a multitude of barriers throughout their working careers and many of these barriers contribute to a workforce that leaks, particularly during childrearing years.

The message is clear, though—accept that the profession needs to do better and break down these barriers to benefit from a more diverse workforce. One respondent sums it up perfectly, setting out a three-point plan for the profession and for legal departments.

First, recognise and understand why gender diversity is important. Second, change the perception that the only path to success requires sacrificing family commitment.

Last but not least, recognise the non-billable contributions that women often make in the firm.

“Women (and minorities) are often asked to serve on more committees, participate in panels, serve on committee boards, and do other things that can detract from their ability just to bill hours—then they are paid less because they didn’t bill as many hours,” says the respondent.

However, there can be costs associated with gender parity, and from these costs come resistance.

Senior management may believe that the overall resources being spent on a woman employee are greater than those spent on a male employee so it “costs” a firm more if it employs more women, warns Majumder.

She concludes: “My rebuttal to that is, if you truly want the best talent in the industry to be attracted to seek employment at your firm (which will directly impact the quality of the work you do for your clients) then wouldn’t you want to be known as an empathetic law firm that values its employees, thinks about their comfort and has low rates of attrition?

“Or would you rather be known as a misogynistic firm with a culture of hostility towards women?”

gender parity, legal firms, Royzz & Co, Egon Zehnder, Fidus Law, survey, quotas, gender diversity, LGBTQ, CityCV.co.uk, flexible work, misogyny