Status Quota?

April 4, 2013

The idea of quotas for women in the partnership is back. What’s not to like?

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Nicola Rabson, a partner in the employment practice at Linklaters, recently told Management Today that she supports quotas for women on executive boards. She thinks that it’s the only way that businesses, including law firms, will ever really provide proper female representation in leadership roles.

But would a quota system really help women get ahead in law?

It’s the culture, stoopid!

We all know that law firms are pretty shoddy when it comes to retaining women through to partnership. Despite a 50/50 ratio of males to females entering the profession, by the time it gets to partnership, at least half the women have vanished.

According to The Lawyer, among the UK’s top 100 law firms, just 23.5 per cent of partners are women, dropping to a measly 9.4 per cent at equity partnership level.

Some of the leading firms have taken steps to try to improve those percentages. Few, however, could claim real success.

The problem with the City firms is that their cultures have always favoured men. Let’s take a few examples of this:

  1. Recruitment in one’s own image. As Rabson argues, “We are all attracted to our own likeness.” Whilst men are choosing who gets promoted, it is likely that men will advance. Especially where it is seen as the ‘easier’ option, because the men won’t go off and have babies. Which of course brings us to the…
  2. Childcare problem. The working culture of City firms is geared to men who don’t get pregnant or need time off for breastfeeding. The 24/7 work ethic is fine, but a refusal to implement anything but token flexibility excludes women and always will. Even women who don’t want children will be penalised, because (consciously or otherwise) the decision makers will still be factoring in the possibility of a ‘problematic’ pregnancy or two.
  3. The dominance of a male leadership style. The male style tends to be more authoritative and adversarial. Women are generally more consensus-oriented and team-driven. Both can make for highly effective leaders. But as long as men rule the boardroom, women have to try to adapt their behaviour to the more confrontational male style to gain respect and get ahead. They either fail, and settle for a ‘second in command’ post, or effectively become the man on top, a la Margaret ‘The Iron lady’ Thatcher. Not all women are able, or willing, to make that transition.

The benefits of the rod

If companies were forced to up their quotas of females in the boardroom, some of the above might change.

You can’t transform culture just by asking those on top to follow a few female-friendly rules. The change has to come from within – that is, from leaders themselves. If half of those were women, the environment would necessarily shift to support the rise of more talented females.

With a quota-system, companies would be forced to consider how women can really be helped to progress, which should mean more ‘family-friendly’ policies and work-hour flexibility. (This would benefit men as well as women. Many men are no happier than women with the prevailing attitudes to office life.)

Firms would also have to think about reward and motivation, engaging with differing male and female psychologies. Again, this wouldn’t just favour women: there are many men who don’t fit the alpha-male stereotype, and for whom an approach that rewards different talents would be widely welcomed.

The outcome might well be companies with more balanced leadership teams, boasting a wider variety of skills. Perhaps such a team might have successfully challenged the reckless leadership decision-making that helped get us all into the current financial crisis?

At present, it is only large corporates that are even part of the quota debate. But if they were to adopt a quota system, law firms would follow – because these are their clients. Female corporate leaders are less likely to want to work with all-male partnerships.

Yes, this might all happen naturally without any need for forced quotas. Just depends on whether you’re willing to wait another 100 years or so.

Fair play?

The obvious anti-quota argument is that women themselves do not want it. Why would a woman want to work her butt off to get a leadership role, if everyone then just assumes she’s making up the quota?

Well, the truth is that men have been filling a ‘male quota’ for years. There are leadership positions that need filling. Some men who have successfully advanced will have done so entirely on their own merit. But others will just have been the right sex, in the right place, at the right time.

In other words, men have had it cushy in law firms for years. It’s about time women were given the same opportunities. TE

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  • Case for gender quotas in law firms | Inclusiq

    [...] it is gaining ground in both the press and with individual Partners themselves. Most recently The Epilogue reported on the issue in a column; Status Quota. The article made salient points as to why law firms would be wise to consider targets even if they [...]