What do professional services firms need to do differently to enable more women to take up partner positions?

By Elizabeth Ferguson, Associate


“It is madness to have 50% of the workforce not reaching their full potential.  Commercially this is crazy”


Although the commercial case for diversity is strong, professional services firms are still struggling with how to encourage and enable their talented women to progress to partner positions.  According to research published last year by The Lawyer magazine, just 18.6% of partners across the UK’s top 20 law firms are women and this statistic is flat-lining, rather than improving1.

Crelos hosted a breakfast meeting at The Wolesley to bring together women in partner positions to discuss the challenges they had faced and continue to face, and debate ways of initiating positive change for talented women aspiring to make partner in the future.  The attendees came from a number of well-known professional services firms including Ashurst, Clyde & Co, EC Harris, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Grant Thornton International, with British Rowing, the national governing body for the sport, in attendance to add a different perspective.

Targets help challenge decision-making


The conversation started with a discussion around targets and whether the setting of targets provides momentum for change.  One of the firms represented set targets following the publication of the Davis Report three years ago and felt that it had helped them to challenge the recruitment, resourcing and promotion decisions being taken by applying a “gender lens”.  It can be difficult to set targets that achieve a balance between being stretching enough while not setting the firm up to fail. 

It was generally felt that targets help build the momentum for change, but are more effective at increasing diversity, rather than changing cultural norms to allow women to feel more included within their partner communities.

Participate in honest career conversations


Attendees described times when assumptions were made about them and their careers based on societal and cultural norms.  For example, do open and honest conversations really take place on return from maternity leave about the woman’s situation, how she wants to work and where she wants to go in her career?  Culturally, when a successful married couple have children, it is still assumed that the women will be the one to give up work, or at least need to work more flexibly around the children.  Both men and women should be encouraged to participate in honest career conversations and people managers should have the ability to conduct these conversations in an effective manner. 

One attendee described how her firm had put in place a coaching programme to develop partners to have quality coaching conversations with their people, saying that “even if they don’t enjoy coaching they at least understand it and it has changed the way they operate.”

All attendees agreed that developing and nurturing talent should be a key part of the role of a partner, while in reality partners still prioritise client work and say that they are too busy for management tasks.

Performance over “Presenteeism”


The group felt that the issue of flexible working was as relevant to men as to women and a generational rather than gender issue.  It’s not only mums, but dads too who want to make it to the children’s nativity or concert, or equally want to balance work with, for example sport or another passion.  The issue of “presenteeism” is still rife amongst professional services firms, almost to the extent that individuals seem to be measured on how long they spend in the office rather than the results they produce.  Being the only partner working from home or working shorter days can be looked down upon by others.  One attendee gets around this by mandating that all of her team work from home for one day a week.  “No one can complain or judge others for working from home and they are more productive as a result”.

Engaging leaders and role-models


There was agreement that leaders who have a personal interest in diversity, for example, by having daughters approaching working age or a successful working wife or partner, have more understanding and engagement in the challenges.  However, it was recognised that even organisations with CEOs who are passionate about gender diversity are struggling to retain women.

Role models are important for women moving up in seniority, although the negative impact of role models was also mentioned, with one of the attendees being told by a junior “I don’t want to make partner as I have seen how hard you have to work”.  The route to partner is still often seen as a “members club” where the individual’s face has to fit.  One attendee described how the women she coaches through the partner promotion process are often turned down on their first attempt, not for performance reasons, but generally because of confidence and fit.

Doing things differently


There was an interesting discussion about whether business could learn from the sporting model of running gender specific events so that women can move up the hierarchy in a safe and less threatening environment, before slotting in to men’s events as they become more senior.  A way of implementing this model in business could be to grow “women only” departments, which would have a different way of servicing clients, with different goals and measures, and run in a way that would fit better with the way that women prefer to operate.

An attendee summed this up by saying “it is not about shoe-horning women in to the existing environment, but about challenging the environment to make women want to be a part of it”.

To summarise, key messages from this discussion were:


1 FT.Com Female Leadership