How Gender Diversity at the Top of Law Firms Can Mask Poor Diversity Practices Overall

Public attention usually focuses on the top of organizations –CEOs of public companies or senior partners at law firms. When it comes to gender diversity, for example, companies and firms are often judged based on the percentage of women on their boards or in top management, an understandable approach given how much senior people can influence the rest of the organization. Yet, this high-level focus can lead to deceptive conclusions.

In a new article, we examined data on the 250 largest U.S. law firms from 2007-2015, using the annual Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel Association Annual Law Firm Diversity Survey as the primary data source. Women are significantly underrepresented at big law firms (less than 20 percent of partners are women in many firms). This has prompted external stakeholders, primarily clients, to pressure these firms to enhance gender equality. In response, many law firms have taken steps to meet these demands by hiring more women partners, several from outside the firm.

However, we found that firms that recruited more women into senior management than peer firms were less likely to engage with internal diversity practices. In other words, firms with a higher percentage of women partners were less likely to give priority to, and thus spend time and effort on, diversity-focused practices. Those practices include hiring full-time professionals to implement the firm’s diversity program, implementing a formal diversity plan with accountability to management, conducting firmwide diversity training, strengthening the firm’s mentoring program for diverse attorneys, conducting an internal diversity-needs assessment (e.g., culture and environment surveys), retaining a diversity consultant, and supporting the firm’s internal affinity networks for employees. Further, we found that lower engagement with these internally-oriented diversity initiatives was, in turn, associated with fewer women being recruited to fill associate or other lower-level positions.

Overall, our results suggest that firms with higher percentages of women partners made fewer total job offers to women at entry levels, leaving fewer women available for promotion to partnership and other senior roles in the future. We reason that these negative effects occur because firms with more women partners may devote less time and attention to recruiting activities such as summer internships for first-year women associates or women-focused events at law firm offices or elsewhere.

In other words, where one might expect a virtuous cycle in which having more senior women translates into hiring more junior women, we instead found the opposite – a non-virtuous cycle in which the hiring of women at top levels diminishes the firm’s priority and attention towards internally-focused initiatives and practices that promote diversity, resulting in fewer women filling the talent pipeline.

In effect, many law firms use top-level hiring to project an illusion of progress on diversity, while such progress, in fact, masks reduced attention to diversity. This approach has a knock-on effect that harms diversity within the firm as a whole: Because senior women in law firms are still severely under-represented and lack critical mass (30-35 percent representation), even in firms with higher levels of diversity, they have less collective ability to persuade their organizations to pay more attention to internal diversity practices and hire more women at the lower levels. Yet, their increasing numbers make it seem that all is well on the diversity front. Thus, even though big law firms are hiring more women partners, often through lateral hires from other firms, this hasn’t trickled down into better diversity practices throughout firms.

Yet our study is not all doom and gloom, as we propose ways for law firms to improve the non-virtuous cycle. For example, we identify a “boundary condition” through which law firms can mitigate these unintended consequences: substantive representation of women on the diversity and hiring committees of law firms. Through a meaningful presence on these committees, women can identify and remedy lapses in diversity practices, using women at top levels as a support mechanism. By calling out complacency, women on these committees can interrupt the non-virtuous cycle we identified in our research.

We believe that law firms – and scholars – have in the past too often assumed that boosting gender diversity at the top would automatically address causes of gender inequality ranging from managerial stereotypes to implicit biases to discriminatory organizational structures.

We have shown that there is nothing automatic about any of this. Thus, law firms should promote women to top roles, hire more women in junior roles, and ensure that diversity practices throughout the firm are continually enhanced regardless of any short-term diversity successes. These internal practices, monitored by women in key hiring and diversity-board roles, will help ensure that any such short-term success endures.

This post comes to us from professors Priyanka Dwivedi at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School and Lionel Paolella at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. It is based on their recent article, “Tick Off the Gender Diversity Box: Examining the Cross-Level Effects of Women’s Representation in Senior Management,” published in the Academy of Management Journal and available here.

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