Parental leave ‘kiss of death’ for female lawyers

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Taking parental leave is a career ‘kiss of death’ for women in law firms according to a new survey that found a huge 75% of respondents believe female lawyers who take the time out are less likely to make partner than those who don’t.
 
Some of the results of the 2014 InfoTrack/Janders Dean survey that was conducted last month certainly didn’t paint a pretty picture.
 
An overwhelming 85% of respondents believe there is scope within the industry to innovate in addressing gender diversity. One comment particularly captured the general consensus: “Australian firms often trumpet themselves as being good employers for women, [but] in reality roles taken by women have been the first to go when costs need to be managed.”
 
InfoTrack CEO Stephen Wood told Australasian Lawyer that he was surprised about how strong the perceptions in the profession were about women in the legal workplace.
 
“I have no doubt that some firms have in place the policies, practices and mind-set to promote talented women, but whatever the reality - the perception is strong that taking parental leave is the kiss of death for women aspiring to partnership,” he says.
 
“So if a firm is committed to nurturing their best and brightest through to partnership – including women who have taken parental leave - firms need to get a lot better at communicating this to their constituency including their own people, clients and the broader community.”
 
Wood adds that while many large companies have sophisticated programmes in place to identify and mentor talent through to the leadership of the organisation, he doesn’t think this is common practice in law firms.
 
The survey also looked at who may be perpetuating the problem, and found that partners could be partly to blame.
 
Firms’ lawyers are the least resistant to change (12.5%) in comparison to partners - a whopping 39.6% - and board/leadership/support staff (all at 14.5%).
 
“Change is generally not part of a partner’s DNA. They have reached the pinnacle of their careers by being excellent at what they do and generally always having the right answers,” Wood says.
 
“Partners also are acutely aware of the long hours and blood sweat and tears associated to make it to partner level. Often they will feel that women returning from maternity leave can no longer commit the hours required to be or maintain being a partner. So it has to be a very compelling case to get them to change.”
 
But the reality is that this problem is part of a much broader issue of gender equality that entire workplaces are struggling with, says Wood.
 
He points to yesterday’s announcement by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency that it will name and shame 3,000 companies in Australia that have not carried out formal assessments to identify pay discrepancies between male and female employees.
 
“In fact the gender pay gap is at a 20 year high of 18.2%. Female participation in the workforce is at an all-time low also because of the cost of childcare. These issues are all related and not just legal sector specific. They are endemic across the entire workplace and we as a community - from board level down - have to find ways to overcome gender bias.”
 
But it can’t be denied that there’s clearly not enough being done to reverse the statistics in law firms, Wood says.
 
He suspects that although there is a lot of rhetoric, there’s not so much of the ‘walking the talk’.
 
It’s a challenge that requires wholesale cultural change, which entails active championing from senior partners who are modelling the right behaviours, and ensuring the firm has the right policies, procedures and KPIs that translate into the changes people want to see.
 
“Staff will not believe the firm is committed to gender equality and to women aspiring to partnership unless they see it happening around them...
 
“That is, when they actually see women with children in partnership roles, and talented women who are encouraged to succeed despite their different needs, whether they be child-raising responsibilities, family commitments or their otherwise inability to be available 24/7.”