Women in law firms reluctant to utilise gender measures, despite glass ceiling

19 January 2018 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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Women continue to be under represented in the legal industry, even while various support programmes and policies are in place to improve the gender balance of the industry. The new study finds that just 19% of equity partners are women, in addition to finding that many women continue to worry that using such programmes and policies will negatively affect their career advancement.

The UK and global legal industries is currently enjoying a sustained period of growth. However, while the good times continue to roll for law firms, it is easy for executives to slip into a mind-set which avoids areas of poor performance – particularly in terms of human resources. Questions pertaining to equality in the workforce for a wide range of roles, have gained considerable traction in recent years, but law firms are still struggling to act on the societal pressure.

To better understand the current conditions faced by various groups across the world of work, McKinsey & Company has released its Women in the Workplace 2017 analysis. This saw studies focused on specific industries released, including the ‘Women in Law Firms’ examination of the legal industry. The report is based on 23 respondents, employing 16,000 legal professionals, from across the industry. Female-representation-decreases-higher-upThe research found that, much like the rest of global industries, initial intake is relatively even in terms of male and female representation (52% and 48% respectively), before considerable disparities arise. By the time employees reach the level of equity partner, representation of women has dropped to 19%. While the number of men from BAME backgrounds is also relatively low compared to the initial intake, at equity partner level, women from the same ethnic groups are even further neglected, meanwhile.

Contrastingly, there was a slight improvement when it comes to management committee/managing partners and board of directs positions.  These positions saw 25% and 26% female representation respectively. In comparison, only 19% of board roles in the US’ general market are occupied by women. While this is a sign of progress for the legal industry, however, parity remains a distant prospect.

The research too attempts to identify whether there are key differences in motivation to take on partner level roles at the surveyed firms. Interestingly, women had a similar level drive for men to be promoted into most roles, however, when it came to partner level, a discrepancy was noted, with 58% of women and 73% of men wanting to take on the role.Women see uneven playing fieldThe reasons for not accepting the role show that women are sceptical about the political environment, cited by 26% of women and 17% of men, although the inability to balance family and work commitments was the highest concern among both men and women, at 51% and 61% respectively. Both men and women also cited a lack of benefit relative to the personal cost of taking on such as position, at 54% and 56% respectively.

Notably, McKinsey themselves recently made headlines for their company’s female leadership. As well as being touted by many as a possible replacement for McKinsey’s global Managing Partner, prominent businesswoman Vivian Hunt was recognised by the Queen’s New Year’s honours list. Hunt, who is presently Managing Partner for UK and Ireland at the management consultancy, received a damehood for services to the economy and women in business.

Uneven playing field

McKinsey’s report found a number of discrepancies between men and women in terms of their thinking about their respective ability to advance at the firms. 46% of women vs 7% of men say that their gender played a role in missing out on a raise, promotion or chance to get ahead. 61% of women in the field say that their gender will make it harder to get a raise, promotion or chance to get ahead – compared to 14% of men. Fewer women than men, 61% and 72% respectively, say that they have an equal opportunity for growth as their peers.

In terms of how they see their firms’ stance toward being treated fairly, 41% of women and 56% of men say that the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees. Meanwhile, 44% of women and 57% of men say that assignments at the firm are based on fair and objective criteria. Finally, 39% of women and 52% of men say that a broad range of leadership styles are successful at the firm.Programmes and fear of programmesLaw firms are working to create various opportunities, in the form of programmes and policies to support work-life balances, for their staff – well above the wider industry averages. For instance, all firms surveyed offer the opportunity for staff to work part-time or on a reduced schedule; all offer emergency backup childcare services; 91% offer extended maternity leave; 83% offer extended paternity leave; 74% offer programmes to smooth the transition to and from extended leave; and 22% have on-site childcare.

Yet, while the programmes exist, considerable concern among both men and women exists to the impact the use of such programmes might have on their career prospects. 78% of women and 74% of men, for instance, believe that participating in a part-time or reduced-hours programme will negatively affected their careers; 45% of women and 37% of men believe that participating in a maternity, paternity or family leave will negatively affect their career; and 59% of women and 55% of men say that they think that participating in a flexible work schedule will negatively affect their career.