The business case for shattering the glass ceiling

Women@Work

Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a partner at Hall Prangle and Schoonveld. The head of the employment law group and member of the commercial litigation group, she is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.

We know gender equality is a goal we want to strive toward and promote within our practices and organizations. When discussing gender equality, we typically frame the issue as a human rights issue — as the moral thing to do. While the equality of the sexes is certainly a human rights issue, we often do not take into account that it is also good for business and puts the organizations that practice it at a financial and competitive advantage.

Defining gender equality is not an easy task, but we need to have a common understanding of its meaning if we are going to talk about its importance. In its basic form, equality of the sexes is achieved when people are able to enjoy the same rights, privileges, rewards, benefits and opportunities regardless of whether they are male or female. Of course, it is then up to those individuals (both men and women) to determine what they do with the opportunities.

In an attempt to understand what characteristics give an organization a competitive advantage — which is the focus of most businesses — studies have been conducted across the globe to shed light on this issue. These studies have uniformly led to a striking and thought-provoking conclusion: Organizations that actively practice gender equality financially outperform those that do not.

It is important to point out that it is not enough for an organization to promote the equality of the sexes in theory. The organization must be dedicated to providing women with equal opportunities and manifest that dedication by actively practicing equality; this includes having women meaningfully participate at all levels within the organization — particularly at the top in leadership roles.

Recent studies show that, despite the fact women have comprised more than 40 percent of law school graduating classes since the mid-1980s, the number of women represented in leadership positions within the practice of law are woefully low. According to The Federal Lawyer, women make up only: 20 percent of law firm partners; 24 percent of lawyers appearing as lead counsel in civil cases; 22 percent of general counsel; 21 percent of law school deans; 24 percent of judges in the federal judiciary; and 27 percent of judges in the state judiciary. This lack of representation of women in leadership positions within the law means our organizations are not operating at their full potential.

There are many reasons why the intentional practice of gender equality benefits business. First, it allows an organization to recruit and attract the best talent. By not limiting the talent pool based on artificial and irrelevant factors, such as gender, the organization can choose from a larger talent pool.

We know that in the last few years close to half of graduating law school classes are composed of women. Wouldn’t an organization concerned with hiring the best talent focus on the entire pool rather than on just half of the pool?

Second, women’s involvement in leadership positions and the decision-making process leads to better business decisions and outcomes because including diverse opinions is critical to business success.

Homogenous groups tend to make homogeneous decisions. Women bring different skills and experiences to the table. These differences ultimately lead to more creative and innovative decision-making.

Third, organizations that promote and practice gender diversity are viewed by employees as fair organizations and, ultimately, more desirable places to work. This perception leads to a better work ethic as well as less costly turnover.

It also allows the organization to attract candidates who are the “best and the brightest” because candidates want to work for an organization that evaluates people based on their value.

Finally, for all of the reasons discussed above, “customers” tend to reward organizations that practice gender equality. In the legal world, a potential “customer” may be an applicant for law school, a law school graduate looking for his or her first job, a lateral attorney looking to make a move, a jury deciding a case or a corporation or individual looking to retain counsel.

Law firms are increasingly hearing corporate clients question firm diversity practices and reward firms that have a workforce more reflective of the general population. This reward comes in the form of increased client business — the lifeblood of all companies. So while promoting equality is certainly the moral thing to do, it also makes good business sense.