Women are advancing in the workplace in the legal profession, but can we do more?

Diversity and inclusion leader Fiona Daniel considers how law firms can continue and improve support for all women in the workplace, by focusing on intersectionality and culture.

Woman solicitor

It can be hard to create a meaningful gender agenda, but one of the biggest inhibitors that can make impact less meaningful is a non-inclusive gender agenda. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it is true.

An agenda focused solely on women, and especially non-intersectional women, is not enough. If the legal profession desires to truly drive gender equality, then gender must not only include all men too, but also all women.

Having a focus on gender diversity is crucial, the business case has been stated many times over. The gender pay gap across the industry drives us to act, and there are still too few diverse women in senior roles.

When women do not see themselves reflected in all aspects of the law profession, a message is being sent that woman are not wanted, they can’t succeed or thrive. This has a big impact on the ability to hire and retain diverse talent that reflects the public we serve.

When women do not see themselves in overall gender diversity efforts from the outset, striving for equality for women has failed before it has started.

To achieve real change, there are a few things which can be done to enhance existing actions – or you can consider new action to drive gender equality.

Culture

1. Make it part of your business strategy

Ensure diversity and inclusion is not simply treated as an HR initiative. Diversity and inclusion must be positioned as an integral enabler of the overall business strategy and success in achieving in its goals.

2. Commit at the top

Commitment must be more than signing something. Commitment is what is said and what is done.

Commitment must be activated and demonstrated from the top by every leader. More than just talking, it’s action through prioritising time, energy and resources to address inclusion.

Leaders must genuinely believe it matters to the business and to them on a personal level. If it matters to the leader, it will matter to everyone else.

3. Include at all levels

Drive an inclusive culture underpinned by values and their supporting behaviours (inclusive leadership for leaders and inclusive behaviours for all).

These should be embedded across recruitment, talent, promotion, pay and reward, how colleagues interact with each other, and leadership capabilities – to name a few.

Intersectionality

1. Watch your language

Be clear and explicit by what is meant by gender – who exactly is included. Ensure all women can see themselves in the description and include intersectionality from the outset in the diversity and inclusion agenda more broadly.

2. Self-educate

Create innovative and impactful solutions by first understanding what the term intersectionality means, why it’s important, and the pitfalls/outcomes of gender without it.

When focusing on strands in isolation, connect employee networks to incorporate intersectionality and collect demographic data where feasible to see:

  • comparisons in experiences
  • what biases could be present  
  • where they are affecting people

3. Give way and make a safe space

Listen without judgement to the voices of all women from all backgrounds, including those who have disabilities or are neurodiverse, LGBTIQ+, from ethnic minority groups, parents, carers and so on.

Understanding their lived experiences through their various identities will help you create a safe space for their voices to be truly heard.

Work to understand the challenges and barriers, this should lead to potential inclusive solutions beyond policy changes.

Sexual harassment/bullying

Sexual harassment and bullying are still prevalent in today’s workplaces, with more women than men likely to report they have experienced both bullying and sexual harassment.

1. Zero tolerance

Integrate inclusive behaviours that reflect your organisational values and that explicitly condemn sexual harassment and promote dignity and respect.

Support this message with robust policies and transparent routes to raise issues or concerns, with a clear message that this behaviour is not tolerated.

2. Raise awareness with real-life scenarios

Education and awareness through learning resources such as film – with real people and scenarios – can be more powerful than e-learning animations in demonstrating behaviour, its impact and ways to address it. You could use this kind of learning, and repetition of powerful messaging, during inductions and regular communications.

3. Listen when people speak up

Create a speak-up culture where individuals feel safe and empowered to challenge non-inclusive and inappropriate behaviour, by sharing techniques such as how to call in or call out such behaviour.

Reaching full potential

1. Support your team through major life events

Conduct inclusive gender focus/listening groups to understand the systems and processes that are serving as barriers.

Ask yourself: “What do we need to check, challenge and change in the way we do things in the employee life cycle and key life points?”

Consider as many groups as you can, including those who are:

  • planning, taking or returning from career breaks
  • going through menopause
  • transitioning
  • carers
  • parents

2. Expand your culture

Shift from “cultural fit” – an exclusive term with expectation for people to change or adapt to be included – to “culture add”, a much more inclusive term and thought pattern.

Base your culture development on ensuring everyone is welcome to belong and feel included, and that you are providing them with the evidence to believe that is possible – and the tools to achieve it.

3. Challenge your bias

People often make snap decisions about people who don’t look like them, or have not had similar experiences or education. It is a form of bias many of us have that works to prevent both diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Begin by creating a plan of action which includes challenging assumptions, stereotypes and beliefs about diverse talent. Ensure the plan allows you to overcome these in order to make decisions more fairly and effectively against capability, competence, skills and knowledge.

Put systems in place that stop your organisation missing out on tenacious and talented lawyers. In diversity retention, move from standalone mentoring programmes to more impact through sponsorship.

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