Women and Leadership
Deborah L. Rhode
Last year we celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, legislation that allowed some women to vote for the first time. This year we celebrate the passing of 100 years since the enactment by parliament of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, a statute that allowed all women to enter the professions.
These anniversaries are a cause for both celebration and serious reflection on how far women have come in the past century, not just in the legal profession, but in all forms of work. In particular we should all examine the lack of women in leadership roles.
Establishing that women hold less than a fifth of top positions in both the public and private sectors, Professor Deborah Rhode questions why this marginalisation persists and how it can be addressed. The author draws on a series of professions: academia, law, management and politics, as well as women on boards, exploring the reasons for women’s continued under-representation.
This book is an extension of Rhode’s past work on continuing inequality in the workplace, society and home. Notwithstanding half a century of equal opportunity legislation, she reminds us that women’s leadership opportunities are far from equal, and admits that after 30 years of study in this area she finds the ‘issues addressed in this chapter [on the legal profession] frustratingly familiar’.
However, what makes this book compelling is that she offers clear solutions for change despite the depressing statistics quoted. The strength of this book is that each chapter is devoted to an individual profession, in which she applies the same scrutiny of challenges faced by women leading or seeking to lead in those professions. This allows us to compare and contrast the many challenges facing women in the workplace.
The problem for women in the legal profession, Rhode asserts, is gender bias – often unconscious. Rhode offers women lawyers a variety of strategies to deal with unconscious bias, for example simple techniques such as women being clear about their professional and life goals, soliciting frequent feedback, and developing a style that is assertive without seeming abrasive. Likewise, Rhode suggests ways in which firms can help women achieve leadership positions: the creation of taskforces, the development of effective systems of evaluation, and the rewards and allocation of leadership opportunities. A particular problem for law firms, she says, is the shortage of women to assist other women on the way ‘up’, because of an insufficient pool of potential mentors.
Rhode’s book offers us a different vision of leadership, where women are fully included. This vision, she says, ‘improves the quality of leadership and promotes fundamental values of merit and fairness’.
She does this by addressing the big questions about women’s under-representation in leadership: gender bias, the exclusion of women from professional development networks and the disproportionate responsibilities women face in the home and family.
Although Rhode concludes that individuals alone cannot address enduring barriers, she encourages women to be more proactive in seeking leadership positions. An essential read for all in leadership or for those who aspire to lead.
Dr Judith Bourne is senior lecturer in law at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London