Stop tokenism, start retention: How law firms can mark Women’s Day better

What are the challenges women face in law firms and what kind of support is required to ensure that they not only have a place at the leadership table but an effective voice that is heard at that table?
International Women's Day
International Women's Day

Gift vouchers for salons and discounts for spa visits – these are the kinds of sops routinely offered to women come March 8. But is this really what women want?

One day of the year dedicated to nominally “celebrating” the achievements of a gender that makes up half the population, wrapped in pinks and frills, is nothing short of being disrespectful of the achievements and the achievers themselves. Nothing annoys me more than reading Happy Women’s Day messages, unless, of course, I read about awards that categorise women lawyers separately. While that is a subject for another day, this week, I do not want to write about an important amendment in law or a judicial precedent, but I want to put out, what I believe, are the questions we should be asking around women’s participation in the workforce, and in the legal community specifically. What are the challenges women face in law firms and what kind of support is required to ensure that they not only have a place at the leadership table but an effective voice that is heard at that table?

“Everyone counts or nobody counts” will be a line familiar to Harry Bosch viewers. Each year we see that more women lawyers join law firms at the Associate level, but 8, 9, or 10 years down the line, how many of them have a leadership role, either at a law firm or in an in-house position? Family, of course, has a role to play. Sandwiched between taking care of ageing parents and children, managing a home and meeting billable hour targets, something is bound to give, and burn-out is inevitable. No person – regardless of gender – can be reasonably expected to juggle all of this. But women are cast in the moulds of Wonder Woman and Superwoman, placed on impossibly high pedestals, and deified almost, leaving the women themselves with immense pressure and stress to meet these expectations, with complete and utter disregard to their mental well-being. It is incumbent on law firms to take practical steps to eradicate systemic discrimination and ensure that women employees feel supported and are carried forward along with the rest of the team.

The elephant in the room, of course, is billable hours. For the longest time, a lawyer’s value to a firm has been judged on the basis of what she/he bills – a day, a month, a year. In the race to calculate, praise and reward those who bill the most, other achievements – such as the ability to effectively deliver what a client needs, provide sound and practical advice, collaborate with colleagues, hold a team together and take it to great heights – often fall by the wayside. In most cases, when there is a family crisis, the women in the household are expected to step in and handle the situation; for women lawyers, these are clearly times when billable hours would take a backseat in comparison to their male colleagues. Naturally, then, a ‘one size fits all’ approach cannot be applied.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what does happen. Expecting women to fit into these cookie-cutter moulds designed with other parameters in mind is actually to the detriment of the law firm itself. The perspective and diversity of thought that women bring when they are effectively included, is compromised in such circumstances, and often, lost completely. The only way this situation can be overcome is if law firms recognise that profitability and service is more than just maxing out billable hours, and there are many other unmeasured, invisible components to the working of teams that must be considered.

To tell an intelligent, hardworking and ambitious woman that certain personal situations take her off “the track” is a death knell to the relationship between the lawyer and her firm. A model that recognizes qualities other than her ability to bill, that takes into account her need to work reduced hours or hours of her choosing, while retaining the right to stay “on track”, could be more effective. Long before work-from-home was thrust onto the working world thanks to COVID-19, our firm had a culture of understanding the varied needs that women lawyers may have and working out flexible structures for them that did not ride roughshod on their ambitions. This policy has served us well and most of our senior team comprises women who contribute in every way possible to the growth and well-being of the firm.

Mentoring programs that support career development and provide women with varied opportunities are the need of the hour. Equal gender representation on committees in the firm, equal opportunities for promotion, creation of new leadership designations such as part-time women partners and transparency and equality in payment irrespective of gender, could go a long way in ensuring inclusiveness.

By all means, let us celebrate this day dedicated to women across the globe – but let us not reduce it to a day of offering platitudes and sops. Let it be a day for recognizing the challenges faced and celebrating the achievements attained by women. More importantly, let it be a day to deliberate on the progress that has been made, and plan for the progress which could be made to ensure diversity, inclusion and gender parity at the workplace.

Ashima Obhan is a Senior Partner at Obhan & Associates.

Ashima Obhan
Ashima Obhan

This article was first published here.

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