According to Law360’s 2017 Glass Ceiling Report, women make up around one-third of the attorneys in private legal practice. Among the law firms surveyed, just under 23% of partners are female.
At global law firm Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg, 61% of its employees are women. Globally, 40% of the firm’s 80 recent partner promotions were women; a market-leading number for any law firm.
Jen Stolp, Partner in the Banking & Finance Practice in the firm’s Johannesburg office notes, “Baker McKenzie has progressive policies with regards to gender diversity and inclusion and this is revealed in amount of successful female lawyers working for the firm.
“Workplace policies play a major role in ensuring that men and women are treated equally in the workplace. For example, policies around parental leave should ensure that both genders are given the opportunity to choose how they will approach parental leave and who will stay at home with the children. It’s those companies that are adopting a more flexible approach to these types of workplace policies that are providing women with the most opportunity to progress,” she says.
“I am fortunate to never have been treated in a way that made me feel less than equal simply because I am a woman. I always had strong women role models and I never felt that my career was limited in any way because I was female. But too many women are still treated unfairly in the workplace and it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure they receive the help and support they need to resolve any discrimination they face.”
Kate Daniels, Partner and Head of the Gender Diversity Portfolio notes, “We recently conducted an internal survey on gender diversity in our Johannesburg office and found that our female employees did not feel discriminated against in terms of promotion, work allocation or remuneration. These are the three big things every organisation should get right in terms of its gender diversity programme.
“The issues our female employees are facing, however, were to do with work-life balance and family responsibility; flexible working time was important to them. To address this, the Johannesburg firm implemented the bAgile programme. which promotes agile working. Agile working moves beyond the boundaries of traditional flexible working and enables informal and ad-hoc flexibility of hours and remote working. This programme aligns with Baker Mckenzie's bAgile global initiative. Even though it is not specifically aimed at women, they have been some of the key beneficiaries of this programme,” says Daniels.
Daniels explains that another issue working women face is the challenge of leaving practice to go on maternity leave and then transitioning back into practice.
“To help our female employees to adjust to coming back to work after maternity leave, we implemented a pre and post maternity coaching programme. Prior to, during, and after maternity leave, an external coach spends time with the employee, to help them with the transition from busy working professional to mother and then back to being a working professional and mother. This has been very beneficial for our female employees.”
“One area where there is still work to be done is seeing more female lawyers reach the level of principal in law firms. To address this, we have an intensive mentorship programme in place to support and help our female lawyers rise through the ranks of the firm so that they can be made principal and take up leadership positions in the future.”
“The world of law has changed, firms are now actively investing in processes and strategies to assist women in the workplace. We have come a long way from how things used to be, where women did not receive any formal support for the specific challenges they face,” Daniels says.
Lerisha Naidu, partner in the Antitrust & Competition Practice adds, “I am proud to be part of a global firm that identifies diversity and inclusion as pertinently high on its list of priorities. There is an awareness of what is undoubtedly a long-haul project and there is a clear tone from the top. The realisation of true diversity and inclusion is a marathon exercise without any manifest overnight fix – and rightly so because its achievement must be meaningful rather than just quantitative.
“In continuing to advance this project, there is an obligation on everyone who can pay something forward to do so – to empower others (especially women) with skills and opportunities, to make an effort to include (even if inclusion sometimes feels forced and uncomfortable), to share wisdom and to influence positively.
“I have had the benefit of being influenced by not only formidable female leaders but also male leaders that have propagated gender diversity initiatives just as passionately. I have also been influenced by those that have reminded me about my own sense of agency in continuing the change. All of these factors, taken together, have made the difference.”