In terms of gender equality, the point when women have children is still where the biggest drop off occurs. This is, however, not the only point, according to Vodafone Americas GC, Megan Doberneck.
She believes there is another crucial tipping point: when women get to senior roles, their children are in the midst of their childhood. Here, the struggle of juggling not just work and childcare, but the various extracurricular activities of modern kids can become too much for many.
Vodafone is addressing the first gender tipping point, childbirth, via its revolutionary maternity policy, which allows four months of leave at full pay. Following that, for the next six months, women are permitted to work four days per week and get paid for five. The driving force for this was specially commissioned research carried out by KPMG, which showed that giving female employees 16 weeks of paid maternity leave would cost global businesses $28bn, but that the cost of replacing and training new employees to replace those women would cost $47bn. The research strongly suggests that improving access to adaptive policies and practices for women who have children could save companies significantly in the long run.
While Vodafone’s creativity in this area pragmatically addresses a major stumbling block for so many businesses, the issue is as much about conventional ideas of work and what makes a successful worker. Professor Joan Williams at UC Hastings has looked into the issue of barriers to gender progression in the workplace, paying particular attention to the legal profession.
‘We still define the ideal worker as someone always available to work. Often, anyone who does not conform is seen as unsuitable for promotion. In societies where women remain the primary caregivers, this way of defining workplace ideals impacts them disproportionately, especially in a culture like the US, which has longer working hours and shorter vacations than most other industrialized countries. It’s a particular problem for long-hours professions such as law and tech,’ says Williams.
‘People who take parental leave or adopt flexible schedules in law and tech often encounter the “flexibility stigma”: the assumption that they are not committed. This stigma reflects the fact that there has been no concomitant rethinking of the way we configure the ideal worker. The jacket-on-the-chair culture is alive and well.’
Mentoring: a woman’s path to partnership – Meagan Olsen, partner
‘Mentorship can make such a difference in addressing the need for more female leaders,’ says Meagan Olsen, a partner in Paul Hastings’ Los Angeles office. ‘It’s important to have senior women attorneys serve as mentors to our more junior ones. But the reality is there just aren’t that many women partners, so it’s also critical for men to be involved in the mentoring of junior women lawyers.’
Olsen has learned through her own experience the vital role that mentors can play for women lawyers. She is a member of the firm’s 2017 class of new partners, which is 80% female.
An important element of mentorship is providing more business development opportunities for younger lawyers, she notes. ‘I was very fortunate to have mentors who involved me in the business development process from the early stages of my career, inviting me to participate in client meetings and presentations. That firsthand experience was invaluable in honing my own business development skills.’ Likewise, encouraging junior lawyers to seek out opportunities to write articles and speak at conferences can help them develop their own perspectives and gain recognition as thought leaders.
Establishing a strong professional network is also critical. ‘My mentors encouraged me to build my own relationships with my peers within our clients,’ Olsen says. ‘At the time, these peers were not yet in positions to make decisions about hiring outside counsel or directing legal spend, but now they are.’
Recognizing how her mentors helped her advance, Olsen has become a dedicated mentor to junior women lawyers at the firm. ’When it comes to their careers, I encourage them to think about the long term,’ she says. ‘Developing their legal skills as well as their professional networks will be important for them, regardless of whether they continue along the law firm path or move in-house.’
Michele Mayes, general counsel at the New York Public Library, is a longtime advocate for greater diversity in the law. In recent years she has served as the chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on women in the profession. She cites the legal profession’s lack of creativity and flexibility around work as a barrier to diversity, and something which will ultimately hamper its strategic growth.
‘A key issue in regards to thinking differently and therefore hiring differently, goes back to the mighty billable hour. I think this is one area in which accounting firms have really stolen a march over law firms in promoting the idea of team culture and project management much more as outcomes. In a law firm there is no team output, just individual output, and we need to break the model to see the possibilities,’ says Mayes.
‘A problem is that people have obviously made billions on this model, but everything changes – it’s just a matter of when you come to the table. You can change or become irrelevant – pick which one you like better – but that’s an idea that this profession kicks and screams against.’
The talent pipeline is a significant area of focus for many of the general counsel who participated in this research. Many in-house departments are now proactively trying to change the face of their own internal recruitment.
General Electric’s Denniston Fellowship, named after former general counsel Brackett Denniston, is a prime example of progressive thinking in this area. Leveraging its power as a significant client, GE’s legal team recruits a promising, diverse law student and gets agreement from a selection of panel firms that they will interview them for a position. The selected first fellow spends a year working in-house at GE, after which they interview for an associate position at one of GE’s provider law firms.
The scheme was initially given a geographical focus, kicking off in Chicago in an effort to address the hidden issues of social mobility. Central to that project was expanding what is typically a narrow focus on law school selection by leading law firms, with GE selecting their candidate from a ‘non-traditional’ school. Interestingly, many leading general counsel and law firm partners in the US have communicated that if they were faced with the same hiring standards used by top firms today, many would most likely not have been hired by the firms they started their careers with.
Reconfiguring work: breaking the glass ceiling: women in the boardroom – Tara Giunta, partner and editor-in-chief
While there is little debate over the value of diversity on corporate boards, real change continues to be elusive – even as studies have provided empirical evidence that diversity can be a catalyst for a company’s success.
Since 2012, Paul Hastings has been examining the developments that have had an impact on the representation of women on corporate boards globally. Our ongoing study, Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women in the Boardroom, takes a look at the initiatives and movement underway around the world to help close the gender gap.
Despite progress in many countries, the gender gap is still fairly expansive. This is a complex and multifaceted issue, and a wide range of strategies and approaches are being used to address it – each with varying degrees of success. In most countries, there still seems to be limited appetite to set mandatory directives or move beyond voluntary approaches.
In our most recent update, Report Card on the United States, we reviewed developments focused on initiatives to advance diversity writ large – not just gender diversity – on corporate boards. Our study revealed that although change continues to be slow, there have been recent advances by legislators, federal agencies, institutional investors, and others, that have laid the groundwork for meaningful progress to be realized in the years ahead.
Gender equality in the boardroom deserves the attention of everyone – not just women. Failure to provide balance can have costly and far-reaching consequences for businesses. It is our hope that by examining the strategies and identifying best practices of those making progress, we can help push forward even more change.
Our comprehensive report can be viewed at www.paulhastings.com/genderparity.
Marina Merjan, the child of Syrian immigrants and a law graduate from DePaul University, was the first fellow selected. The experience that Merjan received at GE involved learning about the application of law as well as developing an understanding of the legal issues faced by a major corporate.
‘One of the intangible benefits from the fellowship was building my personal confidence and helping me realize that I belong in this profession and doing this kind of work,’ says Merjan. ‘Prior to this, for me, part of the issue was not knowing where I belonged; I was in the top 6% of my class but still felt I wasn’t good enough for Big Law.’
Merjan’s experience speaks to the difference programs that embrace diversity can make. It’s an area where GE general counsel, Alex Dimitrief, feels strongly that a lack of vision from Big Law may actually be limiting the future talent pool.
‘I am becoming more persuaded that pedigreed law schools and law school grades are overvalued as predictors of future success as a lawyer; if you limit yourself in your view on this then you limit yourself to a smaller pool, which is self-defeating in regards to diversity and inclusion,’ says Dimitrief.
In the worlds of technology and engineering, the legal departments may sometimes be veritable oases of diversity in what are typically non-diverse organizations. For many in this field, working with the pipeline at an increasingly early stage is essential, partly because stereotypes and preconceptions are instilled in children from such a young age.
But what does this have to do with the corporate world? Quite a lot thinks Dana Rao, vice president of intellectual property and litigation at Adobe. Rao trained first as an electrical engineer – a desirable trait for patent lawyers working in technology, bringing lawyers in this field a double dose of pipeline issues.
‘The problems we’re facing are big, as they are those of perception. If technology companies are seen as a culture where white men flourish it’s going to dissuade people who aren’t white men from joining us. For example, my youngest daughter is good at science and I’m pushing her to take physics but she says “girls don’t take physics they take biology”,’ says Rao.
‘There is a call out to people like myself, who are fathers working in engineering who have daughters, to make sure they give them positive reinforcement about choosing careers in this field.’
The pipeline: associates can make an impact – Wei Wang, first-year associate
‘For new associates like me, diversity and inclusion are top of mind issues,’ says Wei Wang, a first-year associate at Paul Hastings. ‘We’re in a unique position to help bring about positive change in what can sometimes still be a very traditional industry – and we want to make an impact.’
Wang points out that associates can be powerful advocates for greater diversity. For instance, he serves as co-chair of the firm’s Asian affinity network. ‘We focus our efforts on raising awareness of diversity issues in the legal industry, and supporting our diverse lawyers and professionals through mentoring, networking, and professional development.’
Developing an environment in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive helps attract additional talented young lawyers from diverse backgrounds to the firm – creating a virtuous circle of growth.
Wang notes that this was an important factor in deciding where to start his career. When he interviewed with Paul Hastings, the lawyers he met gave him a strong impression of the firm’s commitment to fostering an inclusive atmosphere. That impression was soon confirmed by his own experiences – first as a summer associate, and now as a first-year associate in the New York office.
‘Our firm strives to create a space where people feel comfortable sharing their unique experiences and points of view,’ he says. ‘That made a great impact on my decision and offers me valuable opportunities for my development as a lawyer.’
For tech start-up Genius, it was a case of addressing the issue head on. Its company recruiters are themselves diverse, but have also taken on a more lateral way of looking for diverse hires. ‘We want our office to reflect all the people who know and love Genius – we want people on the inside to match that external profile,’ says Eddie Washington, co-head of recruitment at Genius. Being a company that relies on crowdsourcing means that reflecting their user base was an imperative for growth.
‘We have to be pretty aggressive with outbound recruiting, it’s a different approach to wanting to focus on diversity from an inward perspective. Part of what I am doing is searching proactively for people and then speaking on panels and other outward engagement to drum up interest with diverse candidates.’
Despite a disparity in size, the similarities are evident with the approach taken by companies like GE and PepsiCo. Their approaches reflects an ethos which considers more than just grades or educational institution in hiring. In the UK, the contextual recruiting system pioneered by recruitment firm RARE seeks to quantify the challenges that diverse candidates have faced, in order to show how their levels of achievement and potential may be greater than those who appear superior on paper in the traditional sense.