50/50 by 2030: barriers to gender parity in senior legal positions

Jennifer VenisThursday 1 July 2021

Following the launch of the IBA 50/50 by 2030 project on gender parity in senior legal positions, Jennifer Venis spoke to senior female lawyers about what they expect the project will find.

On International Women’s Day 2021, the International Bar Association launched a project to identify and address remaining barriers to gender parity at senior levels of the legal profession. The project, ‘50/50 by 2030’, will ultimately provide a blueprint for equality in the profession, and will examine whether existing diversity initiatives are helping.

Mary-Ann Wright, Founding Partner at Manders in London and former Chair of the Women’s Division of the Law Society of England and Wales, believes it’s ‘undeniable that firms are now more knowledgeable about this issue,’ but ‘not much has changed in terms of the speed of progress towards gender parity at the senior level’, despite numerous initiatives, charters and toolkits.

The Thomson Reuters Institute’s Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 finds leadership is seen as incompatible with the disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities women shoulder, particularly in Europe and the Asia Pacific, and barriers to advancement include presenteeism, workload and limited flexibility. It suggests ‘agile working practices can vastly alleviate at least half of the major barriers identified to women’s advancement’.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed many formerly resistant sectors to embrace flexible working, with firms and organisations expected to continue allowing it.

However, Emma Slatter, Chief of Visa Europe’s Legal and Regulatory team and formerly Deutsche Bank’s Global Head of Legal Strategy, says that while ‘moving to flexible working will be somewhat turbocharged because it’s front and centre of everyone’s thinking right now, organisations need to embed it culturally so that presenteeism and over-emphasis on control don’t creep back in’.

Clare Murray, who leads her own employment firm where all but one partner is a woman, says ‘firms are going to have to work hard to ensure a level playing field for their staff, whether they’re working from home or in the office’. That means ensuring technology and infrastructure are set up to ensure flexible workers can be as visible for work opportunities as someone in the office.

Flexible working cannot address all barriers. The Thomson Reuters report also identifies unconscious bias as blocking progression in Europe and North America, and recommends ‘active steps’ to counter it, including gender-balanced assessment panels and mandating gender diversity in pitches.

Murray argues for a structured approach to diversity. ‘It’s not enough just to do one initiative here, one initiative there. The firm has to understand where increased diversity fits into that strategy, and that strategy has to be led from the top. And there have to be clear goals and measurable results. Diversity can’t be something you graft onto your firm from the outside. It has to become a normalised part of the culture and DNA of the firm’.

Slatter sees a clear and significant disparity in promotion opportunity, which becomes increasingly stark at senior levels.

She believes there’s still a particular model of leadership or seniority that processes reinforce, creating a systemic issue in how people are assessed and promoted. She says, ‘work needs to be done around perceptions that are often skewed towards male attributes in terms of what strong leadership and seniority looks like and what exactly is required for these roles. The culture needs to change because the system will never change if the people who are evaluating promotions are thinking about it in exactly the same way they have always done’.

“The culture needs to change because the system will never change if the people who are evaluating promotions are thinking about it in exactly the same way they have always done

Emma Slatter, Chief of Legal and Regulatory Team, Visa Europe

Murray highlights how women can find themselves taking on internal roles that do not have a financial metric and are not valued in the same way as pure financial contribution. ‘Ultimately, what really speaks and wields power in a lot of firms is your financial impact, until the culture as a whole significantly changes to truly value other forms of contribution’, Murray says.

But making a real difference, she says, requires a ‘critical mass’ of senior women leaders.

Masako Banno, Member of the IBA Diversity & Inclusion Council, believes that critical mass can be achieved by ‘setting a reasonable “target” of the number/ratio of women in the senior levels’. But she argues against mandatory quotas. ‘If people have an impression that a woman is promoted just because she is a woman, it will rather cause “social stigmatisation” that women are inferior and should be treated in a special way’.

According to the Thomson Reuters report, ‘the most useful policies are not those which are aimed at “fixing” women or setting them apart from their male peers, but instead are those which actively ensure equal opportunities, remove the potential for bias, and which take inappropriate and discriminatory behaviour extremely seriously’.

Slatter tells In-House Perspective that at Visa, ‘there have always been challenges around targets, but whether or not you position it as a target, it’s about having transparent aspirations and goals, and actually sharing those widely’.

‘Every business area has its scorecard and gender diversity forms part of that. That’s one of the metrics that demonstrates success’, she adds. She says all of Visa’s European leadership team see their statistics on gender diversity, including for hiring, retention, attrition and so on. And what’s more, ‘everybody sees everybody’s numbers. It means that we all feel really engaged together, but also accountable, and it’s very visible’.

And as clients, Murray believes in-house counsel ‘could do a lot more in holding law firms to account’.

In the US, Slatter tells In-House Perspective, Visa has a long-term process in place for getting statistics on diversity and inclusion from firms they work with, but has struggled to implement the process in the UK due to a lack of standardised data.

She is a senior advisory board member of the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s Apollo Leadership Institute, which is supporting the adaptation of the American Bar Association’s Model Diversity Survey for the UK.

She says, ‘with the Model Diversity Survey in the UK, we want to encourage firms and in-house teams to work together, because this problem is a shared issue and it won’t change without having really critical, detailed metrics that operate on a common and consistent basis’.