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Published 01 August 2012 17:31, Updated 02 August 2012 05:01
It is the statistic that refuses to budge.
Despite reams of reports written, countless committees formed, numerous consultants engaged and a myriad initiatives implemented to tackle the proportion of women ruling the roost in law firms, the numbers haven’t changed.
The gender story depicted in the 2012 BRW Top Law Firms survey reflects the same one painted by a report published last year by the NSW Law Society regarding the advancement of women in the profession.
While females hold 60 per cent of graduate positions at the top law firms and comprise 53 per cent of all lawyers at the same firms, the fairer sex still represents just 19 per cent of partners. This figure shrinks to 11 per cent when considering the number of females who attain the holy grail in commercial practice – a slice of equity.
In the past 30 years, the gender composition has changed considerably. In 1988, there were 2000 female lawyers in NSW compared with 11,000 in 2011. In 1984, the firm that is now King & Wood Mallesons made the bold move of appointing its first female partner. Today 22 per cent of the firm’s equity partners are women.
It was as recently as 1990 that a female solicitor at that same firm negotiated the first part-time working arrangement. The fact that 18 years later, that very same female solicitor, Sharon Cook, became the managing partner of Henry Davis York illustrates the profession’s undoubted progress in relation to women.
In Cook’s career alone, the practical opportunities for women have improved dramatically. When she had her first baby in 1990, maternity leave – even unpaid – didn’t exist, so she had to resign from her job and cash in her long-service leave to fund six months away. She then reapplied for her job when she was ready to return. Just seven years later, she was promoted, in entirely novel fashion with a flurry of press coverage, as a part-time partner at Henry Davis York. Today, as the managing partner of that firm, part-time working hours, paid maternity leave and flexible work practices are the norm.
Cook recognises the situation has improved but says as far as the representation of females in senior leadership positions goes, progress has stalled. “Given the number of women in practice the figures are woeful,” Cook told a room last year at the unveiling of the NSW Law Society’s report on women.
The question it raises is why? Former legal partner and the director of the Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workforce, Helen Conway, says culture remains a significant impediment. “Some workplace cultures are shocking and the professional service model needs to change,” Conway says. “A lot of women are rejecting the idea of working seven days a week, 24 hours a day and the attrition rate as women progress reflects that.”
Conway rejects the suggestion that change hasn’t yet occurred because it’s too hard.
“It’s hard but it’s not too hard,” she says. “There is a common framework for achieving change in business and if this was a central business priority that standard discipline would be applied. At the moment it’s not happening.”
If firms don’t translate the goodwill to rectify the proportion of female partners into results, a tipping point will emerge eventually.
“In law there are more female graduates than males and firms compete madly to get that talent in the early stage but they don’t cultivate them,” Conway says.
“Apart from any arguments about diversity it’s an issue about accessing talent. As the percentage of female graduates increases, that is where firms will have to look for their talent and it will eventually force a tipping point.”
Alternatively, law firms might force the issue before that themselves. Next year’s results will prove illuminating.