Achieving gender equality in the workplace

The achievement of gender equality at the highest levels of British business and government has been a much debated issue for some time. However, the publication of Lord Davies’ first Women on Boards Report 2011 and the subsequent 2015 target of 25% board representation has resulted in a more intense degree of scrutiny and media interest – as well as much debate.

With a reputation for valuing tradition, the legal profession is generally considered to be one of the less forward-thinking and progressive sectors, making the debate around quotas and gender equality at senior levels highly relevant. Younger solicitors are now more likely to be female, and Law Society statistics show that 47 per cent of solicitors are women, yet they make up just 12 per cent of Queen’s Counsel and account for 21 out of 148 judges in the Court of Appeal and High Court. In private practice the picture is no more encouraging: the Society’s 2012 statistical review of over 30,000 partners in private practice found that only 27% were women.

Conflicting evidence

In general business terms, there is evidence that some progress has been made. For example, every FTSE 100 company now has at least one woman on their board, whilst 22.8% of FTSE 100 board members are female.  However, counterbalancing these encouraging statistics is the news that Britain failed to make it into the top 20 in the 2014 Global Gender Gap survey carried out by the World Economic Forum. In fact, Britain actually fell by eight places to 26th, ranking behind countries such as Nicaragua, Burundi and Rwanda.

So, what are we to make of these pieces of conflicting evidence?  Have we really made progress or have companies found a way of papering over the cracks of inequality?  To find the answer, it may help to look at the statistics a little more closely.

  • Once non-executive director positions are removed from the equation, fewer than 7% of the top team jobs are held by women in either the FTSE 100 or 250 businesses. Appointing female NEDs will contribute a voice on the board, but will not accomplish the broader positive change that an increase in female representation amongst all directors can. The surge of female NED appointments could be interpreted as a short term route to hitting a number, rather than a commitment to long term change.
  • 61% of companies fall short of the 25% target. This means that the majority cannot identify a woman for 1 in 4 senior jobs.
  • The target may be 25%, but does this truly represent equality? After all, 50% of the population are female.

In the same survey, the Nordic countries performed particularly well with Iceland, Finland and Norway topping the list in first, second and third place respectively. Norway’s implementation of a 40% quota for 500 companies in 2008 is well documented and has been advocated by those in favour of introducing quotas as a positive example of the process in action.

What can we learn from Norway?

The quota issue and its impact in Norway was the subject of a recent debate hosted by the Norwegian-British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy and Innovation Norway. Attended by business leaders and speakers which included Denise Wilson, CEO of Women on Boards: The Davies Review, the consensus seemed to be that operational competence and performance had not been compromised. Furthermore, it seems that the redressing of the gender balance has opened companies up to a wider pool of talent with greater cultural diversity being a positive side effect. However, it also became apparent that Norway’s starting point was radically different from the position here in the UK, rendering any comparisons ineffectual at best.

Norway began its social transformation over thirty years prior to the initiation of quotas. The introduction of measures such as paid maternity and paternity leave (after the first 13 weeks, either parent can take the remainder of paid leave from work) and subsidised childcare created a shift in attitude that we are yet to see take hold in the UK. Most notably, in Norway there is no preconception that the mother will be solely responsible for managing child related issues requiring absence from the workplace. The relative success of Norway’s quota system came on the back of decades of a fundamental difference in how the Nordic society thinks and behaves in relation to men, women and families.

Targets or quotas?

The issue of quotas was also one of the topics raised at the International Women in Law Summit in 2012. The event centred around setting the agenda for change, with discussion favouring gender targets to increase the representation of women lawyers at partnership and in senior roles as the way forward.  It was also advocated that partners should be accountable for retention, career development and building a diverse pipeline. Conclusively, voting at the end of the event showed that 59 per cent of delegates were not in favour of quotas, but 91 per cent would support the idea of legal firms introducing targets.

Top 10 law firm Eversheds is one practice that has taken the board-level decision to introduce targets as a result of declining female partner numbers. Having identified board support and good levels of senior engagement as key to success, target setting is now embedded as an integral part of the firm’s business model. As part of the process, the number of lawyers at each level of career development (from trainees to senior equity partners) was analysed to ensure a diverse pipeline population. This pipeline is monitored and managed at all levels to ensure a range of talent is available for selection and promotion.

Getting to the heart of the issue

Unfortunately, the debate surrounding the whole issue of quotas can sometimes obscure the key issues. Whatever decisions are made about quotas, targets or otherwise, it is time that all legal firms and the profession as a whole starts to think in terms of their own contribution to the equality issue and how that can influence their future prosperity.

The balance, well-being and satisfaction of the people you employ has a significant impact on the success of a firm. Imagine leading a practice that has:

  • Motivated, healthy employees, who don’t lose an average of five working days per employee per year to sickness.
  • Low stress levels contributing to high levels of creativity, enhanced productivity and fewer bad decisions.
  • People it values, providing an optimum internal talent pipeline and lower costs (a report by Oxford Economics estimated the cost of replacing an employee at £30k+; Forbes estimated the figure closer to £50k).

But what does it take to achieve these things? It perhaps helps to understand what is driving employees today. A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that one fifth are looking to change jobs, whilst a further 31% are unsure if they want to stay in their current job. Almost a third are looking to improve their work life balance and 28% want to receive more training and development. These are all issues that are important to address.

Making a fundamental change

In my own experience of working with women in demanding jobs there are certain issues which seem to recur. It’s fair to say that men and women think and behave differently – yet the workplace is often predicated on a male behaviour model. This presents an enormous challenge for many women, creating confidence issues and under development.

Many businesses “help” by creating less demanding roles for women with young children to return to – which leads to boredom and lack of engagement in the job as well as failing to prepare the individual for any future progression in line with their capability. Every working mother I have worked with has experienced a major confidence dip post-children, but very few feel able to acknowledge this, or its impact in the workplace. Equally, any woman over 30 (with or without children) is aware of the elephant in the room; the unasked question – are you planning to have a child anytime soon? – and its potential impact on her career path.

What can partners do?

Research shows that circa 43% of women who have children will leave their job at some point. About 75% will later return, but only 40% of those will resume employment full time. Part of the issue here is that the job they return to must be engaging to compete with children, who are nothing if not engaging. But this is not just about women leaving to have children. There are increasing examples of successful women at the top of their careers leaving because they no longer have the passion for what they are doing; it lacks meaning for them. Being engaged by what they are doing is a vital factor for the female psyche – and current trends suggest this is increasingly a factor for men too. No longer is power and money enough for many of both sexes. Increasingly people are replacing the question “what do I want to achieve in my career” with “what kind of life do I want to have?” To even begin to meet these sorts of needs, legal firms must rethink the traditional practice of long hours, office bound environments and begin to consider alternatives. This could include new ways of working such as flexible working, job shares, home working and results based contracts with no standard hours at all.

Organisations will also benefit from investing in their employees as whole people; this means supporting health, emotional and physical well-being, rather than just offering private healthcare for when things go wrong. The UK economy loses 105 million workdays a year as a result of stress and there are businesses that are tackling this by offering mindfulness andmeditation sessions, on site yoga, fitness centres and gyms and community areas for employees. They have recognised that enabling someone to focus more meaningfully on their job (and giving them space to escape it and de-stress) will improve their effectiveness and decision making.

Whatever your view on the issue, it’s impossible to deny the fact that women enter the legal profession in higher numbers than men but that this is not represented at senior levels. In a profession steeped in history and tradition, fundamental change is necessary. Accept that men and women behave and think differently and embrace this diversity. Whatever the gender, don’t make assumptions about individuals’ aspirations – encourage open dialogue and commit to developing them to the maximum of their potential. Both genders have much to offer – but need to be given the opportunities and support to develop that potential.

About the author: Helen Croft

Helen is an executive business coach and a partner at The Results Centre ( Having progressed through the ranks of a male dominated FTSE 250, business coach Helen is a passionate advocate for facilitating a change in female representation in the senior ranks of business. She works with female executives from across a  range of sectors, including the legal, financial and recruitment industries.


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