If a cursory glimpse at the headline news over the last few months hasn't been enough to crush your spirit, try typing 'women/work' into Google and brace yourself for a slew of discouraging statistics.
As a working woman you are less likely to get the first, critical promotion to manager thereby minimising your chances of getting a leadership position. You’re less likely to be hired into more senior positions. You won’t get as much access to the opportunities that can accelerate your career. And you’re very unlikely to be paid the same as a man would be in a parity role. Even if you do negotiate for a better deal, you’re likely to be considered ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’ for your trouble. And still not get it. The gender pay gap in law is 30 per cent, compared with a UK-wide average of 19 per cent.
So far, so depressing. It’s no wonder that the more senior the position, the scarcer the women. Although women account for 61 per cent of law graduates, only 28 per cent of private practice partners are female. That said, you’d be hard pressed to find a law firm which didn’t state (publically at least) that they recognised the importance of gender diversity and wanted to support their senior female leaders. Speeding up the progress of female talent is good for women but also good for business. Global companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry peers. And in the UK, greater gender diversity on the senior-exec team corresponded to the highest performance uplift: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBITDA rose by 3.5 per cent.
But, as the saying goes, there's many a slip twixt cup and lip. If the cup is gender diversity at partner level and the lip is the reality of women in the workplace then, for many law firms, genuine progress is the liquid that has spilled all over the floor. Too many talented women are not progressing as fast as effectively as they should be. And too many senior women are dropping out of the legal workplace altogether – what a waste.
To keep more women working in law for longer and in more senior positions there’s clearly things that need to be done at a macro level: a commitment from those in senior positions to boost diversity and more flexible working are a good start. Equal pay, better childcare and paternity leave the same length as for mothers would be radical. But what can we women do on a micro level to help override the assumptions, miscommunication and unconscious bias that can hold us back?
We work with many bright, talented, articulate women who are frustrated that their voices are not being heard at work. To help them, we ask them to focus on three areas. It’s a useful checklist for anyone wishing to take stock of their career and work to accelerate their progression:
- Imprint – clarity on goals and strategic focus to identify the imprint you want to leave on the business.
- What are your goals? (Yes, you may want to be Partner but you may also have the goal of a more flexible working week or to retire by 50 or to only work with a specific set of clients. Too often we go with what turns up, rather than go after what we want.)
- What do you want to change? (And what do you need to do to make that change?)
- What legacy do you want to leave in the business and beyond?
- How do you build on your strengths and identify core areas of expertise to develop to make a tangible difference?
- Impact – improving presence and personal impact.
It’s not just about ‘speaking loudly’ in meetings as one (male) CEO recently mentioned as the answer to why women’s voices are not heard at work. When a profession has been so male dominated for so long as law has, women are dealing with decades of institutionalised behaviours which do not serve them well. Progress requires men to listen (and act) on women’s voices and proposals but women can advance the impact of their communication by being bolder in tone (no more apologetic language, “If I may…sorry, but…do you mind?”), by refusing to be interrupted (‘I haven’t finished’) and not being afraid to take up space (both physically and by taking time to say what is important so that others feel the weight of your message.)
Influence – developing the strategy and skills to progress in the organisation
Many of the women we coach feel that if they do a great job, their work will be recognised and they will be singled out for promotion and progression. And, at times, with a supportive line manager, that does happen but it’s a very passive approach to take. Those who progress more quickly through an organisation are often those who are good at their own PR. They realise it’s their job to make sure they’re in control of the story they want key influencers and sponsors to know about them. Should you have to do this? Surely doing the good work is enough? Only up to a point. Make sure you amplify your accomplishments. If this feels uncomfortable, or big-headed, include others such as your support staff in your accolades. But make sure the people who need to know what you have achieved, and what your ambitions are, do.
Progress is being made within the establishment structures in business, society, politics and law that stand in the way of leadership diversity, but it’s slow. To speed up progress, more women need to gain senior positions and make those changes happen. Because then, EVERYONE, will benefit.
Louisa Clarke is a partner at The Caffeine Partnership, a strategic consultancy which works with companies that recognise the importance of gender diversity and support their female leaders by giving them the means to accelerate their development.