Women to The Top – How Do We Create More Female Leaders in Professional Services?

Are female leaders in professional services still heavily outnumbered? That seems to be the conclusion of a slew of recent reports, which have found that management consultancies and other professional services are still haemorrhaging female talent at senior levels.

This is also an all too familiar picture in the legal industry. Women lawyers and consultants are still leaving the profession early or are being overlooked for promotions. In an ongoing study on women in the legal industry in Ireland, the author refers to the long hours culture that has become more widespread in the last 20 years preventing career progression, not just for Irish women lawyers but in the industry as a whole.

The New York Times also describes a ‘bleak picture‘ for women trying to rise up in American law firms, based on the 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling report. While smaller law firms perform slightly better with the percentage of female lawyers obtaining partnership/equity partnership, the average number remains around the 20% mark, barely rising from results from the previous year. There are some examples of individual success stories, but the lack of overall progress is startling, especially considering the focus there has been on improving gender and diversity within law firms in recent years.

And the problems go beyond the fight to get to the top – female partners where they exist are earning 24% less, according to a survey commissioned by legal recruiter Major, Lindsey and Africa, with average annual compensation for a female law firm partner at £502,841 compared with £667,521 for their male peers.

So how can we ensure that organisations worldwide can hold onto and develop female talent into leadership roles? From the studies, we’ve highlighted the 5 points of change that employers in the legal industry need to make to create more female leaders:

1. Stop Dismissing the ‘Big’ Issues as Being Outside of One’s Control

Wider societal obstacles to female leadership, such as the lack of fathers taking up paternity leave, are of course not solely the concern of firms and consultancies. However, inroads can be made towards changing these patterns by more employers actively promoting flexible working and shared parenting policies for all. Societal norms can only be challenged and changed with positive actions from power holding stakeholders, and employers have a great deal of power to be a catalyst for change within their industries and can help lead the way for society at large. More often than not it is not societal attitudes that are the problem – many people would share the carer burden if they could, but too often the responsibility falls on women as they face obstacles in their professional development, leaving families with little other choice.

2. Incentivise Flexible Working Policies for all Employees

It’s a point we’ve touched on before but it bears repeating – flexible working shouldn’t just be seen as a problem solver for special cases – it should be an innovation driver that is actively encouraged in the workplace. Large corporate firms such as Lloyds Banking Group and Cisco have cited productivity improvements as a direct result of flexible working practices, and they are not alone. Shutting out valuable talent and experience due to long and rigid office hours makes increasingly less sense as technology and methods of communication and data sharing progress. Organisations both large and small need to take a proactive approach to encouraging people to work differently, to keep up with the competition.

3. Work to Ensure a Predictable Workload

It’s not always about flexibility or less hours in the office for female professionals – often the problem for those trying to balance caring responsibilities is the simple need for a more predictable work schedule, with advanced notice on travel and meeting requirements. This requires an empathetic and collaborative approach with clients to manage expectations and set regular boundaries for work hours, allowing people to plan childcare and other home arrangements. The attitude that only those who are able to drop everything at short notice are the ones that deserve senior positions needs to die out – everyone, regardless of gender, has a personal life that they value and there should be more emphasis on making the most of the talent available and suiting their needs, rather than expecting everyone to fit inside an increasingly narrower box.

4. Place Higher Value on Different Role Options

This leads us to our next point of focus – the idea that part time working or shared roles are indicative of a lack of desire to move forward. Progression should not be impossible in these circumstances. One of the suggestions that Source Global Research gives to help retain female talent is to place higher value on part time workers, give them more wide ranging responsibilities and client facing work to allow them to continue their career trajectory. This approach would also ensure that part time workers are respected amongst their colleagues and peers, changing the culture of the workplace and showing others that there is always another path to take, instead of feeling that their only option is to leave as life responsibilities change.

5. Stop Measuring Performance Solely on Revenue

Most growing organisations are broadening their focus in performance reviews beyond simply how much money a department is raking in. For as long as we measure individual performance and productivity solely on revenue, we overlook the value that a strong leader can bring to the whole organisation. Leadership skills that help employees develop in their personal goals, that create a more communicative and healthy work environment, a different background of experience that enables the organisation to become more outward looking – these are all important qualities that ensure long term growth and gains. Leaders within an organisation are part of a much bigger picture than % profits, and the more diverse the leadership is, the more value they can bring.

These, and many other detailed recommendations for encouraging more female leadership are not revolutionary and have been discussed time and time again. There needs to be more openness to change. Professional services must adapt their practices to retain vital talent, as new generations place higher value on work that works for them.