As more legal and other firms are coming to realise, a good gender balance at senior level pays dividends in terms of decision making and financial performance. This article explains why

 As we mark International Women’s Day 2014 (8 March), it is clear that most organisations realise that diversity in their senior leadership teams should be a goal, even if they don’t necessarily know how to get there. The research is unequivocal: boards and senior teams with gender balance make more robust decisions, associated with better bottom-line results. In the legal sector this makes sense, as over half of law graduates are women. What are firms missing when so many women leave the profession? How much “smarter” could teams be if they retained this talent?

Women bring a fresh perspective, enabling leadership teams to better “see around corners”, as one of my male corporate clients explained when remarking on the “superpower” he felt women brought. Simply put, diversity creates stronger teams. Research from the London Business School on “Innovative Potential” found that optimal team innovation and self-confidence occurred in teams with a 60-40 split between women and men.

Looking at the websites of the Scottish 30 “big firms”, however, few are gender-balanced in this way. Firms range from 94% male partners to the most gender-diverse at 52% male.

Better than smart – smarter together

What could Scottish law firms be missing? David Isaacs, a sector head in advanced manufacturing and technology services for Pinsent Masons, explained: “I have been lucky to work with some very diverse teams, including a strong contingent of female, LGBT and BME people. We focus on utilising the talents of each team member. An insight for us was in asking each team member what they enjoyed doing most, allocating tasks and building accordingly, which was hugely effective.”

Digging more deeply into why diverse teams actually outpace teams of individual smart people, research conducted jointly by MIT and Carnegie Mellon demonstrated that having more women on a team actually improves its “collective intelligence”. Professors Woolley and Malone gave subjects, aged 18 to 60, standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks – including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles – and to solve one complex problem. Teams were then given intelligence scores based on their performance. It wasn’t teams with high IQ members, but teams that had more women that earned much higher scores.

Wooley explained: “Before we did the research, we were afraid collective intelligence would be just the average of all the individual IQs in a group. So we were surprised but intrigued to find that group intelligence had relatively little to do with individual intelligence. The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women the better, though the benefits flatten out at the extreme end – there should be diversity rather than all women. Part of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which was important to group performance."

She continued: “Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether men or women. What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart, but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.”

On this point, Katie Douglas, an employment partner at Morisons, found listening a far smarter way to handle not just employee conversations, but also clients. She explains: “Experience has taught me that clients want to hear from and see those who will actually be supporting them day to day, rather than a top team of exclusively white men. Fielding a diverse and engaging client team still distinguishes you and helps to quickly foster strong client relationships and a productive and creative approach to the work.”

Consultative style

In the InclusIQ Institute’s work with general counsel (GCs), we find that legal clients do want “top teams” from their suppliers. They want diversity, not simply because they want to see women, but because they want a range of “top” perspectives thinking about their matters. It’s the range of perspectives as well as leadership styles that make these teams smarter, more efficient and less prone to gaps in judgment. Multiple studies show women directors tend to use co-operation, collaboration and consensus-building more often – and more effectively. Women also tend to consult others in the decision-making process, leading to a more co-operative feeling in the firm, which again strengthens team commitment.

Lynnsey McCall, a partner at the legal search firm, Major, Lindsey & Africa reflected: “The appointment of a female lawyer in a traditionally male-dominated company can make a significant difference. Particular examples of success include male-dominated sales teams being less concerned about losing face by accepting advice and guidance from a female lawyer rather than a male, and female GCs successfully establishing a more collaborative approach between the commercial teams and the legal team.”

Looking not just at the obvious experience the new hire brings, but how she can improve the team dynamic is a smarter approach, and one that more of McCall’s clients are beginning to appreciate when looking to fill their top vacancies.

At the InclusIQ Institute we also see this heightened awareness and a greater push for better balanced slates. How are our clients, and other firms, actually addressing gender balance? In the last gender audit we conducted for a global law firm, we made over 40 recommendations which are now being actioned across the business. Real buy-in is generated because the majority of our recommendations are not focused solely on women, but on making the organisation more forward-thinking in the way it manages all its employees and responds to client need.

Putting it into practice

Pinsent Masons is a firm with a new focus on gender diversity, as senior partner Chris Mullen explained: “We’ve put it right to the top of the agenda, and launched a major, long-term programme to ensure more women become partners and eventually join our senior leadership team. It includes adopting formal targets and changing many of the ways in which we have operated historically as a firm, to ensure inadvertent barriers to our women lawyers are removed.” The programme has already seen some early successes since 2013, with 40% of elected positions now being held by women, significantly ahead of the current percentage of women partners in the firm.

Many top firms attract over 60% women law graduates, and have done so for many years, so this is not simply an issue of waiting for junior women to “trickle up”. Discussing what it will take for real change to occur, Mullen added: “Factors like our male lawyers sharing childcare responsibilities and wanting more of a life outside work are also rapidly changing attitudes. Improved technology makes developments like flexible working quite normal, whereas only a few years ago they may have been regarded as problematic.”

They are equally committed at Morisons, where their talent pipeline for promotion to partner now consists of more than 50% women. Douglas relates: “We have an appraisal system which values a broad range of skills and not just those which are traditionally ‘male’. We also have transparent processes for promotion based on business case. We needed to move very firmly away from the traditional ‘tap on the shoulder’ approach.”

In a rapidly changing legal marketplace, where clients are demanding more innovation than ever, the firms that use diverse individuals to create even smarter teams will be the 21st century winners.

The Author
Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris is founder of the InclusIQ Institute, which provides inclusive leadership solutions designed to rewire inbuilt biases for a fairer, smarter and more competitive workplace.
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