Our common struggle: celebrating women in governance

On Feb. 20, I attended the Women in Governance Annual Recognition Gala. This was a celebration of public companies that made a commitment and achieved at least 30 per cent female representation within their boards. It was inspirational to hear about the shared experiences and the strategic business decisions that drove these companies to make a commitment to actively promote equity within their governance board.

Fernando Garcia

On Feb. 20, I attended the Women in Governance Annual Recognition Gala. This was a celebration of public companies that obtained a parity certification from Women in Governance. This certification not only evaluates parity at the decision-making level of organizations, but also assesses the organization’s commitment to the implementation of mechanisms that enable women at all levels of its hierarchy to achieve career advancement, thus creating a pipeline of female talent. It was inspirational to hear about the shared experiences and the strategic business decisions why these companies made a commitment to actively promote equity within their governance board. Also valuable were the lessons and best practices shared by the leaders of these companies, as to how they managed to achieve these results. In many ways, these lessons can also be adopted by the legal profession so as to establish a roadmap for law firms and in-house departments in achieving equity.

You can’t fix what you can’t measure

The first lesson was that you cannot fix what you cannot measure. Companies make substantial investments and undertake great efforts in quantifying data, extrapolating information and forecasting results. Everything from financial data, market-share statistics, turnover ratios and returns on investment are measured in painstaking detail every quarter and this information is then readily made available to shareholders. Yet, many of these same companies are unable to effectively quantify the number of female representation at various levels within their companies. Consequently, they are also unable to develop effective plans to close any gaps that may exist.

The same is true for the legal profession generally. In fact, this is even more critical for law firms as their human resources (the lawyers, paralegals and support staff) are often the only thing that sets one firm apart from another. As was noted by the speakers, companies that don’t leverage the potential of women are companies that are not operating at full potential. Why then are these firms voluntarily leaving money on the table or ceding an advantage to their savvier competitors?

The measurement of female and diverse representation at all levels across the firm, measuring turnover rates for women and minority lawyers and conducting exit interviews to understand why diverse lawyers are leaving, are critical to growing equity and for leveraging diversity within the firm. These are not very time consuming to do; they just require a commitment. This is a critical first step.

Policies and procedures

Another clear message that resonated from these companies is that leadership begins at the top and it is critical that systems be put into place to ensure that everyone buys into the need to ensure equity within the company, at all levels. All employees need to understand that this is not an exercise in feeling good, a flavour of the month or merely an exercise for marketing the corporate brand in certain markets. Rather, an equitable workplace is a critical competitive advantage and essential for the success and survival of the company. Without such leadership and support, even the best policies and best intentions will fall into disuse and will be disregarded.

It begins at the top and companies need to establish and enforce policies and procedures that support and encourage women’s participation on their boards. Human resources must also accept as part of its mandate the need to do things differently. This may mean posting for opportunities in sites and in ways that it has not traditionally done in the past. It may also mean adopting approaches such as the Mansfield rule (or Rooney rule), where at least 30 per cent of applicants interviewed must be female or a diverse candidate or, even better, both.

Build the pipeline

Getting women and diverse candidates in the door does not end a company’s obligation. Another best practice shared with the audience was the importance of building a pipeline and providing support to women and diverse employees within the company. As noted, a large challenge remains, as less than five per cent of CEOs are female. That being said, there is some optimism when you take a step back and look at the one, two or three layers beneath the CEO level, as many capable and experienced women are and should be ready and able to immediately take on these roles when they become available. The key is to provide the support in advancing women and diverse members, while providing them with the sponsorship and mentorship opportunities they need to be successful in these new roles. Mentors also should not be restricted to those that share the same characteristics (gender and otherwise) as the recipient of the support. There is also much to be gained from receiving such support from other allies who may not share the mentee’s gender, ethnicity or a myriad other factors. 

In law firms today, males still hold a disproportionate amount of partnership positions. The key will be to engage them in providing support for women and diverse coworkers, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is in the best interest of the company or firm to do so. Clients (generally we general counsels and in-house procurement departments) are increasingly looking for law firms that share their commitments and objectives when selecting counsel.

These are just some of the key insights I took from this great gala. By reflecting on these, one can start taking the steps necessary for ensuring equity and parity within their boards, their law firm, corporate departments and their company. I just leave you now with my favourite quote of the day: “The day an incompetent woman is able to obtain an important role in their company is the day that we have achieved equality.” I look forward to seeing you at the next Women in Governance Annual Recognition Gala to share additional best practices and your own stories of success.

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