Concrete steps firms can take to further gender equality at the top

Maddocks' Michelle Dixon and Telstra's Justine Rowe share their best tips

Concrete steps firms can take to further gender equality at the top

Both Michelle Dixon and Justine Rowe agree that gender diversity brings a multitude of benefits to businesses.

“From the firm’s perspective, gender diversity is both a commercial imperative and a competitive advantage,” says Dixon, who is partner and chief executive of Maddocks.

“We all know that a law firm is only as good as its people. We offer our clients solutions, and all the research shows that the best solutions come from diverse teams,” she says. “We also need to select our next leaders from the deepest pool of talent to bring a range of attitudes, outlook and experience to the table.”

Dixon says that at the most basic level, women should be given every opportunity to achieve full and successful careers. Pay equity should be a given, she says, and climbing up the ranks should be based on real merit and not on what people think a leader looks like. 

Rowe, who is general counsel of Telstra, echoes the sentiment.

“Law firms with a workforce that reflects the balance in our society – be it from a gender or broader diversity perspective – can expect to experience higher engagement in the workforce and to realise the commercial benefits of diversity of thought,” she says.

Seeing women ascend to senior roles is important, Rowe says, since it shows what is possible and makes sure that there are leaders available to support and mentor others.

Challenges on the ground

Rowe says that promoting gender diversity in the senior levels of organisations is easier said than done.

“Talking about gender equality is easy; being focused about delivering change to drive equality in an authentic and meaningful way is harder,” she says.

For Dixon, the challenge is two-fold. First, the expectations that we set for ourselves, and that businesses have historically set for their people is a key roadblock.

“There is no doubt that there is still a deep-rooted attitude in society that a woman will be the primary carer, that her career may have to take a back seat to that of her partner,” she says.

Another problem is that “merit” is usually used as a proxy for “objective,” Dixon says.

“In fact, it’s a subjective assessment, usually based on what we have seen in the past: who has done the job before. This, to my mind, is basing success on the past, not looking to the future,” she says.

Leadership and execution

Success in furthering gender equality at the leadership levels boils down to two main issues, Dixon and Rowe say.

“It is critical that the leadership of the firm do just that, lead rather than simply support diversity issues. Leadership on this issue is action-orientated, accountable, visible and it is transparent,” Dixon says.

“I believe that this is a critical success factor.  When I look at businesses having success in this space it is the ones who have management and leaders that are leading and driving the change, not just supporting it,” she says.

Rowe offers a three-step plan of action.

“Set an ambitious and measurable plan, execute against the plan and externally report on achievement against plan.  Being visibly accountable for equality is a powerful message for your organisation,” she says.

Both leaders will be at this year’s Women in Law Summit in Sydney to talk about achieving gender equality at the top of organisations.

“In my view it is important to drive a community of continuous improvement and equality in the law,” Rowe says. “These events provide a forum for sharing the experiences of women, women in law and women helping others.”

The summit takes place at the Amora Hotel Jamison Sydney on Tuesday, 25 September.

“I would love to say that gender equality in the law is not an issue and we can now move on to other issues. Unfortunately, I can’t,” Dixon says. “Events like Women in Law Summit are important in discussing solutions to the challenges that are preventing true gender equality and for holding ourselves – the legal profession – to account in an open and transparent way.”


Related stories:
Legal heads offer perspectives on championing change
Introducing the Women in Law Summit 2018


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