International Women’s Day: Stop ‘fixing women’ and put them in management

On International Women’s Day, Reed Smith Europe and Middle East managing partner Tamara Box has written a piece for The Lawyer on diversity in leadership, and why law firms are missing the mark

Tamara Box

It’s no secret that firms with diversity in leadership have stronger financials, better client relationships, and greater opportunities for innovation. The case for diversity has been proven and accepted by most businesses and organisations, but many are still scratching their heads over how to achieve the critical mass needed to reap the rewards from it.

The original approach was dedicated to “fixing the women”. Mentoring, training, managerial guidelines, women’s groups both within organisations and across industries—all these were pitched as the panacea that would put women into leadership. But the problem was that the women weren’t “broken” in the first place, so “fixing” them did little to move the needle toward gender balance.

Sponsorship became the next solution. Who knew that there were so many talented and capable women in our companies? Maybe all that was needed was to make management aware of them, to include them in meetings, maybe even give them some decision-making opportunities, and they would shine on their own. Leadership positions would then be awarded to those whose merit previously lay undiscovered.

Aggressive sponsorship brought a further tilting of the needle, but still the real critical mass remained elusive.

For the last fifteen years, researchers on the issue of gender balance have been telling us we have to put more women into management if we want to get more women into leadership. That’s not as paradoxical as it sounds, and it doesn’t involve artificial quotas or number targets. It all comes down to role models.

“How many of us still expect to see a man when we are told we have a meeting with the managing partner?”

Mentoring and sponsoring focus on individuals; first we identify those with potential and we mentor and sponsor them so they can become part of senior management. Role models differ in that they work not on an individual level but on a collective level—in our organisations, industries, and communities—to change the unconscious perception of what a leader looks like.

How many of us still expect to see a man when we are told we have a meeting with the managing partner? Don’t be ashamed if you’re one of those. You are a victim of the collective subconscious that simply views as “normal” that which we see most often.

But leadership is not off the hook for this perception. We have the ability to make our management look “normal” with a mix of men and women, and we have the responsibility to do it consciously and immediately.

More than a decade ago, in an effort to really move the needle on gender balance, Reed Smith chose to reserve to the appointment by the global managing partner three positions on the executive committee for diversity appointments (all others are elected).

The women who were initially chosen for those places were qualified, experienced, dedicated lawyers who were perhaps not well known enough to be elected by the partnership as a whole but whose potential contributions to the governing body were recognised by the global managing partner.

We like to think that we have been able to change the collective unconsciousness at our firm through this very conscious and appropriate use of female role models. We do know that we’re doing something right because now more than 30 per cent of the elected members of our executive committee are female.

Seeing women in the role has made it “normal” to elect them, so much so that the three positions originally set aside with gender balancing in mind have most recently been used for the appointment of men!

Furthermore, our senior management team is now gender balanced, and over 30 per cent of our practice and industry group leaders are women.

It’s clear that role models work. But getting immediate results requires conscious and deliberate action on the part of leadership. What are you waiting for?

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