Gender Balance Owned By Boards Is Good Business

Gender Balance Owned By Boards Is Good Business

Many firms suffer from the problem of paying “lip-service” to gender balance. Balance gets a mention at the annual partners’ conference. HR tracks the diversity numbers. Targets may be set. Women’s groups and networks are established. And yet, men often remain unengaged, unconvinced and unpersuaded about the need to take real action, with the result that the numbers of female equity partners and firm leaders continue to remain stubbornly low. The challenge persists – how do firms get more men to take gender balance seriously?

This Insight looks at what not to do, and more importantly, sets out some steps that firms can take to truly change their gender ratios at the leadership level.

What not to do?

  • Regarding gender balance as women’s work – gender balance is a business issue and not a problem for women to “fix” alone.
  • Framing balance as a women’s issue – statements such as “I have a wife/daughter, therefore, balance is important” tend to position balance as a moral or social issue, rather than a business imperative.
  • Establishing men as champions and allies – co-opting men to the cause and awarding them with titles can be embarrassing for some. Men may be embarrassed for being singled out as “the man who gets it”, as well as for being made to look like heroes; not all men are comfortable with being tagged as a hero or a feminist. Women may be embarrassed as this approach tends to reward good male behaviour – a traditional interpretation of roles that many women are not comfortable with. Another issue with these titles is that they make gender balance appear as the exception, rather than the normal and accepted way that a business is run. Before embarking on this approach, exercising caution is advised.
  • Tracking diversity as only an HR statistic – if gender balance is viewed only through the prism of diversity, rather than being regarded as a business imperative, then it is unlikely to get the focus and commitment needed to achieve balanced ratios.

What to do?

In short, make gender balance a firm imperative and a business issue, fully adopted and run by a firm’s most senior leaders. There is now abundant research available to support the notion that when senior leadership teams truly commit to gender balance as a top business priority, improved performance and results will follow. Some ideas for Boards to get started with include:

  • Make gender balance a business issue part of a firm’s strategy, owned by the Board and driven from the top down. Only when strong, authentic messages and properly resourced strategic programmes are delivered from the top, can a broad base of support and positive action be achieved. Success relies on the most senior leaders at a firm (not just the HR team), agreeing on the urgency, relevance, priorities, goals and drivers of gender balance initiatives. Anything else risks being seen as “politically correct” and will not achieve the levels of commitment needed to drive real change in the numbers of equity partners and senior leaders.
  • Examine the composition of your Board and Leadership team – self-correct if necessary. For an authoritative voice to be heard throughout a firm, Boards and leadership teams must reflect the aspiration, authentically.
  • Track ratios, especially at both the equity and salaried partner level – we often see firms not separating these numbers. When a partnership is viewed as a whole, the ratios may look somewhat acceptable. However, when broken down into equity vs. salaried partners, the ratios often tell a very different story. The same is often true for practice group leaders and board membership.
  • Male role models are necessary to help engage, convince and align other men but these role models need to be senior leaders. Mandating others to achieve balance, without the right behaviours and activities being modelled from the top, is largely a waste of time.
  • Stop trying to “fix the women” – move on from trying to teach women about how to deal with gender differences, and instead, invite men into the conversation about how all leaders need to be able to manage all types of diversity and difference in the workplace.
  • Train leaders on what they need to do – training leaders on how to achieve balance is likely to be far-reaching from how to introduce the concepts of balance and diversity, explaining and then communicating the explicit business links between balance and performance, to adapting communication styles and messaging, balancing workloads and tasks fairly, and designing relevant metrics to track performance. Embed the various ways to achieve gender balance as a set of specific leadership skills in development programmes. Normalising these skills as part of a leader’s toolkit helps build organisational balance, competencies and culture.
  • Invest in business development skills training for women – the criteria for making equity partner is often based on a partner’s ability to bring in business. Whilst business development skills may not be that different for women and men, many women could benefit from specialised training in this vital area.
  • Make all leaders accountable for gender and wider diversity improvements – normalising balance as a regular business metric moves balance from the exceptional to the mainstream. If all leaders are held accountable and measured for building their diverse talent pipeline, then the likelihood of change is higher.
  • Check your “manel” scores – at a very practical level, a group picture can say it all. Review every image put out by your firm – practice brochures, website team photos, speaking panels, conference engagements etc. – and be attentive to what these images say about your firm. Are the group leaders more often men? If women are shown, are they usually represented in more junior roles? It’s a simple audit to do. Images of this nature can be telling and reveal the true nature of balance in the most senior ranks of a firm.

Driving gender balance is an essential lever to achieving strategic goals and improving overall performance.  Boards need to articulate the business case for balance by making the explicit link between balance and business. Make balanced teams the sign of a highly skilled leader, to be rewarded as a mandatory leadership competency.

We would be delighted to hear your thoughts and continue the dialogue with you. We hope you’ve found this Insight to be constructive and thought-provoking. We share comments and ideas of a general nature, with the aim of helping firms contend with current challenges. As such, the content above is unlikely to be complete and comprehensive enough for a firm to reimagine the future. Rather, it may be a beginning or a conversation starter, as each firm is different and the challenges each faces are unique. If you would like to continue the conversation, then please connect with me for a confidential conversation.

Jennifer MilfordAuthor: Jennifer Milford

Jennifer Milford is a leading legal industry consultant with extensive experience gained while operating as a Chief Operating Officer for two of Asia’s largest law firms. Jennifer's blend of strategic insight and practical approach is highly valued by clients, particularly in the areas of strategy, mergers, integration, innovation, and client and people development, and where law firms need to address cultural, cross-functional, and alignment challenges.