A global study of law firms identified cultural attitudes about women’s role at home as a key barrier to women’s advancement in firm leadership.

Another barrier was bias – if largely unconscious bias.

The study was conducted earlier this year by the Thomson Reuters Institute and Acritas as part of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative.

It looked at 45 specific measures aimed at increasing gender diversity at senior levels of 84 law firms. 

Women currently account for just 24 per cent of equity partners, yet they make up more than half (56 per cent) of junior associates according to the study – with firms in Europe having the widest gap. 

This, the report said, is in spite of the fact that industry data shows gender diversity positively impacts law firm performance. 

For example, gender-diverse teams and firms achieve greater client spend and above-average financial performance. 

The study identified two major barriers to gender equality in law.

First, what it described as “a still-lingering cultural attitude about women’s role at home”, with leadership roles having been regarded as “clashing with perceived cultural norms and expectations that women shoulder a larger share of domestic responsibilities”. 

Researchers found this was a significant trend among European and also prominent among Asia-Pacific firms.

Bias was identified as the second key barrier. 

The report said firms have found several measures effective in combatting bias, while other well-intentioned measures were ineffective or even counter-productive (such as reverse mentorships and women’s-only networks). 

Measures that actively ensure equal opportunities and remove the potential for bias were more effective than policies that set women apart from their male peers. 

The study identified two key countermeasures that have proved effective, firstly actively combatting unconscious bias, such as disguising gender on CVs and ensuring gender-balanced assessment panels for candidates. 

Secondly, the study concluded that flexible working proved “the most effective method to boost women’s ability to advance to and succeed in senior legal roles”. 

Responding to the findings, Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The Next 100 Years, said: “I welcome any report that seeks to shine a light on the inequalities still facing women in law.”

She said the study “rightly identifies” women as still shouldering a larger share of domestic responsibilities, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The First 100 Years has”, she added, “been consistently researching how women in law have fared during the pandemic and we found that women were taking on extra childcare with many forced to reduce their working hours to do so. 

“49% of those we spoke to said that they were taking on more childcare responsibilities than their partner.

“Clearly outdated sexist views continue to permeate, but I am confident that these can be overcome by visible leaders and role models driving change.

“It is clear that the partnership model globally continues to reward on a narrow base of success factors, and until that changes women will continue to be underrepresented at the top.”  

Though flexible working opportunities are key, added Denis-Smith, “so too are flexible minds”.

She commented: “In the same way that those leading our law firms have seen that large scale home working can be effective, that attitude now needs to be embrace large scale flexible working.”

This would make a significant difference to women’s progress, she added.

Elizabeth Beastrom is president of Global Print and global sponsor of the Thomson Reuters program on transforming women’s leadership in law.

She commented: “Advancing gender equality in law firms clearly benefits not just women, but all stakeholders in a firm – including leaders, attorneys and clients; gender-diverse firms produce more effective legal work and experience better financial performance.”

She added: “Achieving gender equality requires examining all aspects of a firm: culture, recruitment and promotion; attorney and practice performance; client relations; and much more.”

Firms willing to commit themselves to these goals can, she said, “realise a multitude of benefits, including more effective and engaged attorneys, and improved client relationships”.