Bold Steps for Advancing Gender Equity

On the eve of the 68th Commission on the Statues of Women (CSW68), official UK delegate and ex-Michelmore’s HRD, Colette Stevens, reflects on how she helped increase the percentage of female partners from 22% to just under 50% in under eight years.

“Diversity is often regarded as a politically correct distraction, an issue of morality and social justice, but not of performance and innovation….It is only when we absorb the truths of diversity science that our perspective starts to shift.“ 

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas.

This blog isn’t about convincing you as to why increased diversity is important. Instead, I share my learnings from being the HR Director, given what we achieved. I integrate my learnings with having had a significant leadership role during that time, whilst being a single parent to two children. My experience tells me that more emphasis is needed to better understand and solve the wider systems which shape our organisations. This means involving everyone (not just women) in the conversation. 

  1. Make the Workplace more Inclusive for Parents

Build flexibility and agile ways of working into the fabric of your organisation – make it the norm rather than the exception. I have a real fear that with the current “march back to the office” we will undo opportunities for progression, particularly for those with caring responsibilities.  When I speak to working parents who are Associates and Senior Associates in law firms, many hold an assumption that becoming a partner, and combining this with a family life isn’t feasible for them. Finding ways to avoid perpetuating the “always on” culture is integral to this. Being in the office all day and consistently working very long hours is not sustainable, and does not enable anyone to deliver their best work.  Creating a workplace where having a family (or other caring responsibilities) and being a partner is more sustainable supports the attraction and retention of top talent, irrespective of gender.

  • Involve Men in the Conversation 

In organising events which promote gender inclusion, actively encourage men to join the conversation or co-facilitate the discussion (even if this means occasionally tapping a few people on the shoulder!). We sought to create a collective commitment to solving the issue. By joining in the conversation, it creates more opportunities for everyone to understand the dynamics and challenges, which in turn creates a safer space for men to voice their questions. Sometimes I found men wanted to get involved but were scared of saying or doing the wrong thing. Find ways to engage men on a “hearts” as well as a “minds” basis. Encourage them to think about how maintaining the status quo (in wider society) may impact their daughters, nieces etc. I found if I could encourage a male colleague to identify a younger woman in their family, who they cared about and who this might impact, it could help trigger a shift in perspective

  • Understand the “Broken Rung”

Recent McKinsey/LeanIn research showed that for the ninth consecutive year, women’s biggest hurdle to achievement is the first step up to manager; for every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, 87 women are promoted. As a result of the “broken rung” women fall behind and never catch up.  We invested time in understanding this broken rung, and identifying specific steps to address the gap. For example, in common with many law firms, we had a bigger percentage of female lawyers at sub partner level as compared with men. The SRA data shows that currently 62% of all solicitors are women. Given this rich pipeline of homegrown female talent, we placed considerable emphasis on finding ways to retain these individuals and support them on their path to partner.

  • Re-examine Talent Processes

What I learnt early on is that it is extremely tough to untrain unconscious bias out of people (including me – I too bring my own), but finding ways to adapt the processes to be as bias free as possible will help. Track and monitor the gender statistics around key talent decisions, to better understand where progress is taking place and where bias may still be creeping in. Integral to this is setting some stretch targets (not quota!). Given our focus on retaining home grown talent, we placed a lot of emphasis on how we could create the conditions to promote a greater proportion of our female talent to partner, without diluting the calibre of those being promoted. 

  • Embed it into the Strategy, and Educate Why it Matters

Work with the senior leadership team so that they understand the importance of gender equity and the benefit it can deliver to the business. It could be that it helps to create a more attractive talent proposition, maybe there are shifting expectations from your clients, it may be crucial for accelerating innovation. Understand where the pressures are and why this matters, then ensure that your Senior Leadership Team bring this to life through their actions and that these actions align with the “why”. When there are a myriad of other important strategic topics which require the attention of the leadership team, being persistently clear about the difference this can make, can make all the difference!

What are some bold steps you can take in your organisation to accelerate the progression of female talent…? I’d love to hear what you will be doing differently to invest in women and accelerate progress.

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