If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times... At some point during a discussion about why women, despite outnumbering men in the legal profession up to the age of 40, are not being pulled up into partnership, someone will state - usually in a very regretful tone - that "the real problem with women becoming partners is the 'family issue' - and there's not much you can do about that".
This universally accepted 'inevitability' is meant to explain it all. Well, I don't think that is good enough.
Firstly, I am not sure I actually believe it to be true. Secondly, if it IS right, then why aren't law firms up in arms about this? Why are they prepared to lose so much talent that they have invested considerable time and money in? In a profession where women have been entering the law in greater numbers than men since 1992 (currently 60% of lawyers under the age of 36 are female), how is it that in 2016 women still only represent between 12 - 18% of partners in some of the top firms in the country, and around 17% of equity partners in the UK as a whole? Despite the odds being against men in the early stages of their careers on the numbers, a man coming up through a law firm is still 10 times more likely to make partner than his female colleague.
If this loss of women is so inevitable, then why are we even bothering? Should we all just resign now?
Rather than looking inwardly at why the landscape is not changing, firms just seem to accept it is somehow natural, shrug their shoulders and say "that's the way it is - women choose to have families and leave". It is as if this inevitable departure takes place in a vacuum. My real issue with this is that it is a convenient excuse that takes any responsibility for the loss of talent away from management. In addition, firms benefit from one of by-products of losing women, which is the preservation of the pyramid structure that most firms operate (avoiding the need to enforce an "up or out" policy, whereby those who do not make partner are strongly encouraged to leave).
The problem with repeatedly blaming the "family issue", is that it becomes so accepted that it is self-fulfilling. I have had many conversations with junior female lawyers from a variety of law firms who have categorically stated that they do not believe it is possible to make partner and have a family. Despite not having children yet, they have already mentally mapped out their professional route, which does not include aiming for partnership, because they believe what they are constantly told. If those women then continue their career in an environment where this message is reinforced, rather than countered, and are not encouraged and pulled up, there is a good chance they will join the many women who leave the profession. It is a terrible waste of talent that could be avoided if firms refused to accept the old line about the "family issue" and engaged and encouraged their female associates.
As part of my work on the Committee of Women In Law London (WILL), a network aimed at tackling the poor retention rate of women in law, we have spent a lot of time speaking to our members, who are predominantly associate-level women. It has become very clear that the issue is one of promotion, rather than attrition. Firms need to change the negative assumptions about women's ability to make partner - particularly if they wish also to have a family - and start replacing this with positive, encouraging rhetoric.
I do not wish to underplay the difficulties of having a family and holding down an hours-driven, high pressure job. However, there are women who are doing it - and finding it fulfilling and rewarding. That needs to become the new truth, the new rhetoric.
My advice to firms would be:
• Wipe any assumptions you have about your associate women and what they want. Find out what they really think and what is driving the decisions they are making about their careers.
• Speak to women in positive terms and encourage them - invest in that talent. Are they putting themselves forward as much as the men? If not, find out if that means they are less interested in promotion - or is that they just not sending the rights signals or not being encouraged?
• Look at the promotion process. Is it biased against women in some way?
• Do not accept and perpetuate the old adage that it is not possible to have children and be a partner. Change the rhetoric - make the positive stories the new truth.
• Finally, look at how your business model can be re-structured to accommodate women - and embed those changes and commitment within the culture.