‘Unconscious’ gender bias limiting profits in many firms

Firms may be missing out on being both more profitable and more gender-equal by not grasping the real importance of workplace flexibility

Firms may be missing out on being both more profitable and more gender-equal by not grasping the real importance of workplace flexibility.

Women Lawyers Association of NSW (WLANSW) president Natasha Walls has told Australasian Lawyer that “broken career syndrome” - a traditional explanation for the lack of female progression in firms – is only a small part of the equality picture, and that a wider focus on flexibility could be more helpful for equality and firm bottom lines.

“Women and men want flexibility for a range of reasons, but often people who take advantage of it can be confined to less interesting work or matters that are less engaging,” Walls said.

Despite firms offering flexible workplace arrangements, many still do not have cultures and practices which reward the people, particularly women, who choose to take that option.

This can often result in them leaving, Walls explained. 

“Recognition and reward still looks mainly to financial performance.  The billable hour is underpinned by the simple idea that more time at work means better work,” Walls said.   

“Firms have cultures and reward practices around promotion into partnership that don’t support people who need flexibility, or reward things that are done outside of billable work such as networking, getting clients or  promoting the firm,” Walls added. 

Walls believes that this partly explains why the gender ratio amongst partners remains so skewed.

A 2012 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission into women in leadership determined that although 61.4% of all law graduates are female, women only hold 22% of senior positions in law firms.  

A 2013 WLANSW report probed the issue in even more detail, asking firms specifically about their number of female equity partners.

It discovered that the percentage was even lower with some top tier firms even admitting they had none at all. 

As a way of addressing this imbalance, all firms with more than 100 employees are now required to submit a report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency which analyses key indicators of gender imbalance.

Walls believes that transparency from firms about female leadership numbers and salaries is beneficial as positive data can be a positive selling point for firms.

A firm with a high number of female partners creates a beneficial cycle because it is likely to attract more talented women to its ranks.

On the other hand firms with a high proportion of male management act according to what Walls refers to as “unconscious bias”.

“There is an unconscious bias in an entrenched culture of male promotion. It will simply seem natural and continue,” Walls said. 

Walls insists that this situation will not change until workplace flexibility becomes a permanent part of firm culture.

Flexibility is also an issue of productivity because men or women who do ultimately leave take away valuable corporate knowledge and history.

“Gender equality is not just a moral argument about doing something because it’s right or it feels good.  Firms will be more profitable because of it.  It shouldn’t just be an issue for HR, it should also be one for CFO’s,” Walls said. 

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