New Zealand Law Society - Keeping high achieving women in the profession

Keeping high achieving women in the profession

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Late last year, two pieces of empirical research were released which are relevant to the continued retention issues in the legal profession in regard to high achieving women.

The statistics in New Zealand are all too clear, with a large number of women lawyers at junior levels followed by a massive reduction at about five years out from law school. Women lawyers have indeed turned on, tuned in and then dropped out.

Harvard Business School research on Harvard MBAs

Harvard Business School researchers surveyed more than 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates, concentrating on those who were still in the workforce from Millennials (starting age 25) to Baby Boomers (aged 67).

The research concentrated on MBAs at Harvard because clearly attendance there indicated high levels of achievement, talent, ambition and promise and by looking at men and women who graduated from the same school the researchers obtained a level playing field for gender comparisons.

Men and women graduates had similar views as to the importance of work and the aim to have fulfilling professional and personal lives with opportunities for career growth and development.

However, the research demonstrated that their ability to realise those aims played out very differently according to gender. Among the graduates employed full-time men were far more likely to have direct reports, hold profit and loss responsibility and be in senior management positions.

The researchers also found that women were less satisfied with their careers, no doubt predictably as a result of the failure to achieve their expectations.

The research showed that the women graduates did not value their career less than the men. Nor was it true that the call of childrearing explained the small proportion of women in corporate boardrooms, corner suites, partnerships and other seats of power.

Caring for children

In fact, only 11% of the 25,000 people interviewed were out of the workforce to care for children full-time. The figure was lower (7%) for women of colour and even lower for Asian women at just 4%.

Furthermore, the survey data showed that highly educated professional women generally leave reluctantly as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. Only a small number left because they preferred to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood.

Far more women had taken breaks from their careers than men. Only 2% of men had taken breaks in their careers, whereas 28% of the generation X and 44% of baby boomer women had at some point taken a break of more than six months to care for children.

Time out could contribute to women’s less successful careers but the research certainly demonstrates that the explanation of child care responsibility for gender differences is not the full story and more nuanced than the knee jerk answer suggests.


The research also demonstrated a significant gap between men and women’s expectations and where they ultimately land. When interviewed as they left Harvard Business School, more than half the men stated that they expected their careers would take priority over their spouses’ or partners’. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women across racial groups and generations anticipated that their careers would rank equally with those of their partners.

In fact, most graduates went on to lead fairly traditional lives on this score. Close to three-quarters of men reported that their careers had indeed taken precedence (more than had originally expected this arrangement). Meanwhile, many women’s expectations for career equality were unfulfilled.

Though majorities reported that they were in egalitarian or progressive partnerships, the overwhelming numbers of women in fact took responsibility for most of the childcare in their families and doing the domestic work. Ultimately, more traditional arrangements did win out.

If women are primarily responsible for childcare, their careers are more likely to become secondary in importance to their partners, perhaps helping to explain their lesser career satisfaction. This despite the fact that women were far more likely to have egalitarian expectations and to see their expectations dashed.

The research also found that traditional partnerships were linked to higher career satisfaction for men, whereas women who ended up in such arrangements were less satisfied, regardless of their original expectations.

The researchers conclude that myths continue to frame the conversation in regard to high achieving women’s participation and progress in the commercial world – in particular, the myth that mothers do not want high profile, challenging work and that women value careers less than men.

In fact, the women alumni from Harvard Business School placed considerable value on achievement and fulfilment at work and on having careers that are valued as much as their partners’ are. Life outside work, including family relationships, is also important to them – just as it is to men.

Suggested changes

The researchers suggest the following steps to address the gender gap in leadership:

Employers need to provide adequate entry points to full-time work for women who have, for instance, recently been on a part-time schedule or taken a career break.

Firms should recognise that women want more meaningful work, more challenging assignments and more opportunities for career growth. This recognises that most women who have achieved top management positions have done so while managing family responsibilities – and, like their male counterparts, while working long hours.

Firms need to be vigilant about unspoken but powerful perceptions that constrain women’s opportunities. The misguided assumption that high potential women are “riskier” hires than their male peers because they are apt to discard their careers after parenthood is yet another bias women confront.

Women graduates, in making decisions about family life and relationships, need to take on board Cheryl Sandberg’s second slogan, “make your partner a real partner”. This is every bit as crucial; particularly for young, achievement-orientated women who aspire to have meaningful, fully valued careers.

Men and women need to be aware of the real gap between what women expect as they look ahead to their careers and where they ultimately land. Men leaning in and a greater sharing of domestic responsibilities with the bonus of more time with their children and less pressure to perform as breadwinners is the no-brainer solution.

The Law Council of Australia Report 2014

On 1 October 2014 the Law Council of Australia released its report on attrition and re-engagement, in particular addressing why women leave the legal profession and do not re-engage. The report was based on data from 4,000 participants across Australia, representing close to one in 10 members of the legal profession.

The Law Council’s report found that culture, leadership and the nature of the work were important factors for both male and female practitioners who had moved roles.

The report indicated that both male and female legal practitioners identified a common set of elements contributing to job satisfaction including the nature of the legal work itself, the level of independence and autonomy, the diversity and profile of the work and the sense of personal satisfaction and the work undertaken.

Where they diverged was the experience of women practitioners in regard to career development and progression in the workforce. Close to one in three females expressed dissatisfaction with the accessibility of mentors to support their career development, and with the opportunities they had for promotion and advancement.

The same one in three expressed dissatisfaction with the rate of career progression and their career trajectory, compared with their expectations. In contrast, less than one in five male practitioners expressed dissatisfaction with any of these aspects of their current role and career to date.

Practical and cultural barriers

Women also identified practical and cultural barriers to their progression. For women with children, balancing family responsibilities was a recognised challenge. Flexible working arrangements were considered to have a negative impact on progression prospects including being allocated unsatisfactory work and being passed by for promotion and dealing with colleagues’ assumptions that because they had accessed flexible working arrangements their priorities lay outside work.

Women participants also identified favouritism, personal relationships and alliances in the promotion process which was seen to potentially favour male candidates in workplaces led by fellow men. Many participants viewed large law firms in particular as having a male dominated culture that is experienced as alienating by some women.

The Harvard MBA and Law Council of Australia research effectively highlights the same findings that the vast majority of professional women leaving jobs after becoming mothers do so as a last resort because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.

“The message that they are no longer considered ‘players’ is communicated in various, sometimes subtle, ways; they may have been stigmatised for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led,” the Harvard Business School report said.

Both reports refer to women’s comments that they became frustrated after being mummy-tracked when they came back from maternity leave, or that the frustration with failing to obtain new challenges and becoming bored with work and preconceived notions about part-time women and mothers wanting less challenging work.

Anecdotally, one hears the same issues being raised by women lawyers in New Zealand.

One way to address this is for law firm managers to be conscious of the representative bias operating in this area whereby we lean heavily on stereotypes to compensate for partial information and we hold onto our beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.

We need to readjust our mind set in regard to women’s careers, work/family conflict and the gender gap in leadership. Conventional wisdom about women’s careers does not always square with reality.

Lady Deborah Chambers practices as a Queen’s Counsel at Bankside Chambers in Auckland.

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