The Law Society's President last week criticised the lack of gender diversity amongst the management in law firms, with partners not reflecting the numbers of women in the profession. In November 2012, The Lawyer reported that only 23.5 % of all partners and 9.4 % of all equity partners across the UK’s largest 100 law firms by revenue were female. President, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, voiced concern that law firms paid only "lip service" to flexible working arrangements, and failed truly to consider how to put diversity and inclusion into practice.
An excellent example as to how law firms might consider real change is to consider changing the way they assess staff performance from the chargeable hours they work to assessing the value this delivers. Many of the issues raised by Ms Scott-Moncrieff are not particular to the legal profession, but can translate to all industries and sectors. Key is the lack of creativity in considering innovative ways in which businesses need to work in order to retain women and allow them to form part of management.
This has been in the media spotlight recently due to the continuing lack of diversity on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. Instead of developing these innovations, all too often the usual contrary lines are trotted out; in particular "maybe men are just better at management roles than women". Others blame the 'maternity penalty', the toll that career breaks take on women's progression at work. The debate about Ms Scott-Moncrieff's speech is no exception.
Yet, new legislation has been proposed, which for the first time ever, could permit the theoretical possibility of significant change to the gender balance in the workplace. As of April 2015, it is intended to allow men to take half of their partner's Maternity Leave, either at the same time as or after each other.
It leaves me wondering how many men will jump at the chance to take Paternity Leave in place of the mother for up to 6 months or whether they will be concerned as to whether their absence will cause bosses to question their commitment to their work. If men do indeed choose to participate, perhaps only then will business begin to reflect properly as to how they might adapt to provide true diversity throughout management layers and retain talented women.
True diversity, true inclusion, is more than just attaining numbers however. It is about understanding the society in which we live today, and how businesses can embrace that society and create a working world that works in harmony with the needs of its employees. Perhaps a truly diverse work culture can only really be designed by those who are not allowed in, which presses the point that women need to be a key part of the debate as to how we can now achieve real equality in the workplace.
Kiran Daurka is a Senior Employment Lawyer at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.
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