Legal blog: fix the woman or fix the law firm?

Why law firms need to stop focusing on gender equality

Feature |

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign revitalized the debate between opposing perspectives on gender diversity: those who believe that women should change to get ahead in the workplace, and those who believe that the workplace should change to accommodate women. Which perspective is right? Many law firms are investing in gender diversity programs. But are these programs actually improving diversity? 

How to get to “diversity”

Everyone seems convinced that diversity is a good thing. For the vast majority of law firms, “improving gender diversity” means increasing the number of women in the partnership. Some firms even go as far as to set a target: usually somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent women in the partnership by, say, 2020. To meet this goal, firms offer women’s leadership training, establish women’s networks, offer coaching and mentoring, and help women find “sponsors” to assist them in their quest for partnership. Others review, improve, and publicize their maternity and flexible working policies in the event that women return to work after having children. Some firms even offer “unconscious bias training” in an attempt to mitigate the so-called “bull’s stable culture” and thus help avoid those awkward moments when a senior partner asks a female associate to serve the tea. 

So if law firms are so proactive in meeting this diversity goal, why are so many women still leaving the profession? Since 2013, the glass ceiling has been re-classified as the leaky pipeline (see McKinsey’s Women Matter). This is born out in the legal profession as although almost half of law firm associates are women, only 10-20 percent of the partnership are women. What is going wrong?

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Markus Hartung & Emma Ziercke