Combating Women’s Initiative Fatigue

Articles
Spring 2015

It is important to address disparate pay between men and women, power gaps, and unconscious bias that manifests in all areas of society, including at work. More importantly, women’s equality in the workplace also makes good business sense.[i] I feel lucky to have met so many other women through Sedgwick’s women’s initiative program who are equally passionate and committed to achieving gender equity in the workplace. Yet, women’s initiatives, founded to combat women’s inequality in the workplace and to work to remedy such issues as disparate pay and power gaps, appear to be exhibiting “fatigue.” Less than 25 percent of 1,800 business people surveyed in Harvard Business Review’s Gender Parity Survey believe women’s initiatives are effective.[ii] What can law firms do to revitalize and reinvigorate women’s initiatives to make meaningful impacts in the places we work? We discuss some of the criticisms of women’s initiatives, together with a discussion of how law firms and other businesses can push for more progress.  
 
Challenges to women’s initiatives highlighted by the Harvard Business Review survey include:

  • Women’s initiatives are not solicited for their opinions on gender parity.[iii]
  • Gender parity metrics are not used to effectively track progress.
  • Women’s initiatives do not have effective gender parity training.
These criticisms appear fair given that female equity partners now reach just 17 percent in the top 200 U.S. law firms, despite the fact that women have been graduating from law school in comparable numbers to men for over 20 years, and women’s initiatives have been active in many firms for many years.[iv] What women’s initiatives appear to have done successfully is to help women in firms bond with each other, and in many instances, with their female clients. Women’s initiatives may also have contributed to better awareness of the need for gender parity in the workplace, in that eighty percent of both women and men say they are convinced of the benefits of gender parity at all levels in the workforce.[v] That shared goal is a great starting point. What types of steps can law firms take to make more and better progress in their goal of gender parity? An interesting case study hails from France. TAJ, ranked as the No. 5 law firm in France, did not establish a women’s forum. Instead, the male head of the firm set a goal and personally ensured that the best assignments were awarded evenly between males and females, tracked promotions and compensation to ensure parity and asked “why” if there was a gap, put his best female lawyers on his toughest cases, and insisted on clients giving a female lawyer three months to prove herself if the client objected.[vi] TAJ now has 50 percent males and females as equity partners and serving on governance boards. TAJ’s chairman believes that diversity programs headed by women reporting to all-male boards “will never work.”[vii]

TAJ’s lesson does not suggest that we should throw out women’s initiatives. But there are concrete lessons to be learned from the TAJ model. When women and men are given intentionally equal opportunities to succeed, they can and will do so. Identifying and implementing tools to help women obtain key assignments, promotions, and equal pay should result in achieving equity faster than merely having affinity groups in the workplace who answer to predominantly or all-male boards.

The ABA Task Force on Gender Equity recommended 12 practices to impact the compensation process and result in gender equity in law firm compensation.[viii] Some of those most significant practices include:
  • Publishing all factors upon which compensation decisions are made.
  • Creating a “critical mass” of diverse members on the compensation committee (The business case: companies who have more women in key leadership roles and board positions outperform their competitors.)[ix]
  • Developing a transparent system to promote fair allocation of billing and origination credit by: (1) allocating credit in ways that promote team, not individual behaviors, (2) incentivizing partners to distribute credit fairly among those who participate in business development or pitch activities, are responsible for client service roles, and managing the client’s relationship, (3) annual review of allocation.
  • Requiring diversity in pitch teams and business-development efforts and ensuring that diverse lawyers become a part of the client team when successful. 
  • Implementing formal client succession protocol and engaging associates in business development by allowing them to share in the credit allocation system. 
  • Measuring and reporting results-comparing the compensation of men and women at every level of the firm, including gender comparisons among offices and practice groups, as well as monitoring and reporting access to important opportunities such as participation in pitch teams.

It is reasonable to expect that workplaces may not implement the ABA’s recommended practices (or their equivalents for non-law firm businesses) without evidence that doing so is good for business. However, in addition to the growing research reflecting that companies with a higher percentage of women directors outperform their peers, at the law firm level there also more clients looking for firms that are delivering on diversity and gender parity objectives. Women’s initiatives should analyze the ABA recommendations in the context of their business realities, and determine how their firm’s business objectives can best be served by some or all of the recommendations. Women’s initiatives remain a great vehicle for building relationships and inspiring women to move forward in their careers. However, if the gender parity numbers have not been improving in your company or firm, it is time to analyze why and take action. 
 


 

[i]Greg Pellegrino, Sally D’Amato, Anne Weisberg, The Gender Dividend: Making the Business Case for Investing in Women, (Deloitte 2011), available at http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Public-Sector/dttl-ps-thegenderdividend-08082013.pdf; John McGoun, Equality Means Business-the Business Case for Women’s Empowerment (Symantec Official Blog, Dec. 17, 2013), available at http://www.symantec.com/connect/blogs/equality-means-business-business-case-womens-empowerment; Kristin Lewis, The Gender Dividend: a Business Case for Gender Equality (U.N. Women, 2011), available at http://www.unwomen.org/~/media/headquarters/media/publications/en/unwomenthegenderdividend.pdf;  Jeremy Hobbs, Briefings for Business No. 7 International Edition  Gender Equality: It’s Your Business (Oxfam International, Feb. 2012,) available at http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bfb07-gender-equality-its-your-business-060312-en.pdf; Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency, The Business Case for Gender Equality  (Mar. 2013), available at https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/business_case_for_gender_equality.pdf.

[ii]  Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman, “Why Workplace Equality Initiatives Aren’t Helping Women,” Harvard Business Review Blog. (Feb. 2010), available at  https://hbr.org/2010/02/why-women-still-arent-equals-i

[iii] Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman, “Why Workplace Equality Initiatives Aren’t Helping Women,” Harvard Business Review Blog. (Feb. 2010), available at  https://hbr.org/2010/02/why-women-still-arent-equals-i

[iv] National Association of Women Lawyers, Report of the Eighth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms at page 7 (Feb. 2014).

[v] Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman, “Why Workplace Equality Initiatives Aren’t Helping Women,” Harvard Business Review Blog. (Feb. 2010), available at  https://hbr.org/2010/02/why-women-still-arent-equals-i

[vi] , Avivah Wittenberg- Cox “How One Law Firm Maintains Gender Balance,” Harvard Business Review Blog, (May 27, 2014), available at  https://hbr.org/2014/05/how-one-lawfirm-mainains-gender-balance

[vii] , Avivah Wittenberg- Cox, “How One Law Firm Maintains Gender Balance,” Harvard Business Review Blog, (May 27, 2014), available at https://hbr.org/2014/05/how-one-lawfirm-mainains-gender-balance

[viii] Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Closing the Gap: a Roadmap for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm Partner Compensation, (ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity and the Commission on Women in the Profession, 2013), available at http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/closing_the_gap.authcheckdam.pdf.

[ix] Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Closing the Gap: a Roadmap for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm Partner Compensation, p. 33  (ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity and the Commission on Women in the Profession, 2013), available at http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/closing_the_gap.authcheckdam.pdf.