How to get more women on top

From tweaks to its hiring process to 'unconscious bias' training for its selection committee, here's how legal firm Addleshaw Goddard is ensuring that great women rise through the ranks.

by Justine Delroy
Last Updated: 05 Nov 2012
There is no doubt that there is a need to increase female representation at senior levels across all businesses. A more diverse business is a stronger business, but implementing legislation is not, we believe, the most sustainable or effective route to take.

What is needed is a combined approach of providing a supportive environment to inspire and develop women to reach more senior positions, whilst also encouraging cultural change through example and education.

In 2010, we set ourselves a target of achieving a 25% female partner proportion by 2014. This is not a quota; rather we see it as a goal that we are striving to achieve. It has an important role in setting a marker for us to work towards and provides direction and motivation to make a change by delivering the right environment to inspire women to succeed due to their ability.

In a male-dominated profession, such as the legal sector, the culture and firm structure mean that female employees may have a different career experience from their male counterparts. This is why we applied a 'gender-lens' to our current assessment and selection process to ensure that all candidates are competing on an equal footing.

One of the concerns was that women are often less familiar with the members of the (predominantly male) promotions committee. Research shows that if a candidate is known by one or more of an interview panel they are more likely to be assessed without bias, so at Addleshaw Goddard all candidates for partnership now meet with the promotions committee in an informal setting prior to the formal interview.

Other research shows that it is natural to unconsciously favour someone similar to yourself. But if you are aware of that natural bias, it allows you to counter it and makes it more likely that you will select the best person for the role. Therefore, all partners involved in making decisions about who to put forward and approve for promotion have been given unconscious bias training.

Our efforts are starting to pay off, and this year two thirds of our internal partner promotions were women, but there is still more to be done, and increasing levels of engagement and aspiration are key to this. For the first time this year we launched a gender specific development programme to take a fresh approach to tackling the industry-wide 'glass ceiling' issue. We invited over 40 female lawyers from Addleshaw Goddard and our clients' in-house teams to address the real issues facing female legal professionals and equip them with tools to break down the barriers. The feedback from attendees has been really positive. One described the programme as 'thought provoking and informative'.

Whilst there is no doubt that implementing mandatory gender quotas would increase the level of women at board level, it would not address the underlying cultural or practical issues which prevent them from getting there in the first place. For me, it wouldn't be empowering to have the niggling suspicion that I had been promoted in order to meet a quota – quite the reverse in fact.

We think that alternative routes should be fully explored and exhausted, before resorting to legal measures and sanctions. With time and commitment, we are starting to see progress in our own firm and whilst it may be tempting to use quotas as a quick and easy 'solution', changing mindsets and adopting new ways of working is the only way to bring about real and, most importantly, sustainable change.

Justine Delroy is partner and head of the Gender Working Group at law firm Addleshaw Goddard LLP

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