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Women Initiatives That Are a Waste of Time

The Careerist

December 8, 2020

Every time I write about how some women’s initiatives might be too insular or mommy-centric, I get angry letters from women who accuse me of being a traitor to my gender. Some ask whether I have children (yes, I do), while others simply call me anti-mom.

Well, folks, it’s not just my opinion that some initiatives reinforce stereotypes. According to a new study, Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Global Report 2020, by consulting firm Acritas (now part of Thomson Reuters), “the most useful policies are not those which are aimed at ‘fixing’ women or setting them apart from their male peers.”

But before I get into what’s wrong with some women’s initiatives, let’s start with a finding in the report everyone can cheer: flexible working arrangements are now widely accepted—an unexpected silver lining resulting from the pandemic.

Acritias reports that “female lawyers in particular have benefited from their changed working patterns during lockdown and many will leave their firms if those new work patterns cannot be sustained.”

Because family responsibility can set back women’s careers (the other major barrier is bias, according to Acritas), flexible working arrangements are an absolute key to women’s advancement, the report says.

Now back to the thorny subject of women’s initiatives. Which ones are harmful? Acritas names a few—gender-blind work allocation, reverse mentorships and women-only networks.

But here’s what Acritas really focuses on: coaching programs for new parents returning to work. (I know it’s technically for all parents, but let’s admit we’re really talking about moms.) Though championed by “well-intended women’s networks and management,” those types of initiatives often reinforce “the erroneous perception that female lawyers are fundamentally different than male lawyers and therefore require special treatment,” reports Acritas.

What? Taking aim at a program that helps moms reenter law firm life? You might as well tell them they shouldn’t be entitled to paid maternity leave either. Indeed, those let’s-help-mommy-get-back-on-track programs are the latest must-haves at some firms.

“Yes, it’s controversial to criticize them, but this is based on statistical findings,” says Lisa Hart Shepherd, one of the study’s authors. “At some firms, the programs might be working, but that’s not what we find in the [overall] statistics.” (The study looked at 45 measures to help advance senior women at 84 law firms in Asia, Europe and North America, including Allen & Overy, Arent Fox, Baker & McKenzie, DLA, Dorsey & Whitney, Freshfields, Hogan & Lovells, Linklaters, McDermott, Norton Rose Fulbright and Reed Smith.)

I get what Shepherd is saying. While it sounds great to pair new moms with a coach or mentor to prepare them for reentry into law firm life, I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about these programs. They heighten the notion that it’s daunting, maybe traumatic, for women to go back to work—as if the experience of being a new mom is akin to being run over by a truck that requires massive physical and mental intervention before she can walk again. 

Instead, the study advocates that we start with “the non-negotiable insistence that the femaleness of women lawyers is never the problem.” It suggests that the firm take a long, hard look at its “own long-established culture and values; the attitudes of current leadership; the structure of prevailing work practices; its approaches to reward, remuneration and advancement.” And, of course, clients need to keep up the pressure on firms to promote gender equality.

In other words, the whole kit and caboodle!

It’s a tall order, but Shepherd says she’s hopeful because there’s already a major cultural shift afoot. Which brings us back again to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Acritas says there is now a “new normal” to how all of us work and that women should use it as leverage to advance into leadership roles.

“Suddenly, there’s acceptance of agile working arrangements, and there’s no geographic limitation,” says Shepherd. Flexibility and the demise of physical presence at the office—what Acritas calls “presenteeism”—are game-changers, adds Shepherd because that’s what women, particularly moms, have long argued for.

Though Shepherd says both men and women have benefited from agile working arrangements, she adds, “remote working, on the whole, has been more positive for women, and they’re thriving more.”

And why’s that? She pauses, then says: “I know this sounds sexist but women are more organized and collaborate better.”

Hey, whatever works.

[email protected]

Twitter: @lawcareerist


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I think this is right on target. These programs tend to stigmatize women. They don't change embedded bias or presumptions; they may actually make them worse,.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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