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26 November 2020

Law firms should guard against trying to 'fix femaleness', report warns

Study says flexible working is key diversity weapon, but women-only networks may be counter-productive

By John Malpas

Lisa Hart Shepherd

Lisa Hart Shepherd

The setting up of women-only networks and reverse mentoring programmes may be unwittingly undermining gender diversity within law firms, according to new research.

A report by Thomson Reuters that measures the effectiveness of common diversity initiatives warns against programmes that support the ‘erroneous perception that female lawyers are fundamentally different than male lawyers and therefore require special treatment’.

The report – Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 – argues that measures like flexible working that are designed to combat long-established cultural values and practices preventing the career advancement of women are most effective while ‘those that aim to fix femaleness are ineffective at best’.

Acritas founder Lisa Hart Shepherd, vice president, research strategy at Thomson Reuters, said the research had  “leveraged findings from numerous law firms globally to identify initiatives that are proven to be effective in improving gender equality at the highest levels of firms”.

The report notes women are three-times less likely than male lawyers to have a non-working spouse and half as likely to have a spouse working part time meaning that ‘the rigid working practices of many law firms place women at a disadvantage’.

It urges firms to leverage the Covid-19 pandemic’s requirement for mandatory home working ‘to change your firm for the better, permanently’. 

While women’s role at home was the barrier most cited in the Asia Pacific region and was also commonly mentioned in Europe, bias against women was mainly highlighted as a problem in Europe and North America.

‘While this bias is not generally seen as deliberate prejudice, unconscious biases throughout a career can lead to a cumulative disadvantage for women when it comes to achieving promotion,' the report says. ‘Such bias may manifest in work allocation, in unfounded beliefs about what the client is looking for, and in promotion criteria, which put part-time lawyers at a disadvantage, for example.’

The report calls on firms to review practices and processes in key areas ‘including recruitment, promotion, reward, work allocation and team composition’ with the ‘specific goal of redressing the effects of unconscious bias’.

The study also highlights the prevalence of bullying within law firms as a factor adversely affecting women, citing an International Bar Association survey that found that half of female lawyers globally had been bullied, and one-third had been sexually harassed in the workplace during their legal careers.

Law firms that participated in the study, which was conducted by The Thomson Reuters Institute and Acritas, include Allen & Overy, Allens, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Hogan Lovells, King & Wood Mallesons, McCarthy Tétrault, Nishimura & Asahi and Reed Smith.

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