Increasing gender diversity is a prominent focus for organisations across the UK, particularly at the executive level where the gender imbalance is most pronounced. In 2010, the 30% Club was formed with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by 2020. That goal then expanded to other industries, challenging professional services firms to close the gender gap, including in legal departments and at law firms. To meet that challenge and increase the number of women amongst their ranks, corporations and law firms need to look at how they present themselves in the market and throughout the hiring process. 

Starting at the Top

The gender diversity message needs to come from the top of the organisation. Senior law firm leaders and legal department managers need to understand the importance of having a diverse team and make a genuine commitment to balancing the numbers in their organisations. Without a truly supported commitment, the organisation will never make in-roads in this area. Leadership can be held accountable for hiring more women by linking their managerial responsibilities to performance.

In both law firms and corporate legal departments, evaluation those responsible for hiring should include diversity criteria. This would allow executives to investigate why it is hard to hire and retain women and to tackle these specific issues head on in order to do better in the future. One way to do that is to tie diversity hiring and retention directly to bonus pay-outs.

Not only does it acknowledge the importance of hiring and retaining top female talent, but it provides added motivation and accountability to leadership. Only when leadership is held to a higher standard and action points are visible will the rest of the firm take notice and follow suit.

Spreading the Message

Having a clear message about your commitment to gender diversity hiring throughout your organisation will allow your external recruiters and internal hiring team to act as diversity champions in the market.

To make sure your message is clear, begin by holding training sessions for your hiring managers, practice group/team leaders and recruiting coordinators. Explain your organisation’s diversity and inclusion policy in detail. Connect them with successful female hires within the organisation who can help to hire more women. Provide them with specific examples of successful hiring that can be used when talking to potential talent in the market to further demonstrate your commitment.

A poor diversity record should not be an obstacle if change is led from the top. If your diversity record is not good, then explain the specific steps your organisation is taking to improve it. If possible talk about your inclusive culture even if you don’t yet have the diversity statistics to demonstrate it.

Educate any recruiters used by the firm on your gender diversity policy as well. Be clear that they must be committed to presenting qualified female candidates for consideration. When choosing external search firms with which to partner, you should always do your own due diligence and check the diversity credentials of their organisation and their placement.

It is equally important for them to 'show not tell' their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Diverse candidates are more likely to listen to diverse recruiters or recruiters who are known for their commitment to diversity than recruiters whose deal sheets are dominated by white male candidates.

Keep in mind that your commitment to gender diversity should not only exist when hiring for full-time positions but also for interim/contract positions. Because interim roles are usually not treated as headcount, diversity is often overlooked. However, it is important to apply the same diversity criteria to interim and permanent placements as contract lawyers can turn into permanent members one day.

They also play an important role in forming company culture and can be effective ambassadors of your culture in the external market.

Interviewing with Intention

We have all heard that men are from Mars and women are from Venus; these essential differences can make the hiring process look different. Compared to men, women tend to:

  • Be more loyal to their company and therefore are more difficult to engage in discussions about external opportunities.
  • Take longer to build trust, which means they require more contact and information sharing throughout the hiring process.
  • Consider fewer options when making a career move.
  • Shy away from selling themselves. They often downplay their abilities and experiences, and attribute credit to a wider group by using ‘we’ vs. ‘I’ when describing their achievements.
  • Emphasize whether an organisation’s culture is the best ‘fit’ over the possible financial gain of making a move.
  • Place more importance on knowing someone at the organisation they are considering joining.
  • Negotiate less during the offer process.

As the interview process begins, make sure the interview panel has an understanding of these differences and addresses them.

  • Make sure female and male leaders who act as your diversity champions are brought into the recruitment process and are on the interview panel.
  • Train your interview panel to conduct structured interviews and to ask for demonstrable examples of leadership competencies to prevent bias.
  • Sell the company’s or team’s culture and career path, moving away from ‘the way we work’ being one-size-fits-all; this will help you attract a more varied group of talent.
  • Provide specific examples of successful female hires and promotions within your organisation.
  • Address flexible work options. Don’t wait for a candidate to ask.
  • Discuss the percentage of travel and relocation requirements upfront. Addressing these early on and talking about how they can best be managed will avoid problems later in the process.

Women shouldn’t be expected to change their communication style in order to convince you of their value. It is incumbent upon the organisation to operate with requisite cultural intelligence to evaluate candidates of all genders and backgrounds without bias.

Maintaining Momentum

After a hire is made, continue to emphasise and live your diversity and inclusion message. Hold regular reviews of your hiring process to understand what works and what doesn’t. By tracking this process, you can focus on any issues and roadblocks and implement steps to correct them. That is when you will see results.

It is also important to be aware of your internal messaging to the rest of the organisation when bringing on female talent, focusing on why this individual is best qualified for the job and not over emphasising their gender.

Gender diversity hiring is successful when purpose, attention and commitment are paid to the process. Having a clear message, holding the leadership and the hiring team accountable, addressing interview process bias and holding regular reviews with new hires will help your organisation to build a diverse team and inclusive culture.

Anja Skvortsova is a search consultant at Major, Lindsey & Africa