Disrupting The Barriers To Women’s Career Progression

Law firms provide one of the more graphic examples of persistent gender imbalances of any sector. In Australia (as with both the UK and the US) women are the majority of law school graduates and law firm recruits.

In Australia the data is clear:

  • More women graduate as lawyers than men
  • There are over 50% of women in senior associate positions at almost every firm
  • 24.5% of partners are women
  • 35.3% of key management are women
  • Only 16.9% of firm CEO’s are women
  • The gender pay gap is higher than the national average of 14% at 25.1%.

Women have made slow progress up the ranks into equity partnership, and it’s becoming increasingly visible. There is no denying that there is a gender imbalance, regardless of what the early career stats look like. For many years people have tried to argue — “give it time the pipeline will fix the gender equality problem”. But it hasn’t, because the problem has never been the supply of talented women – it’s always been systemic, behavioural and cultural issues associated with traditional approaches to running legal practice. As a young lawyer first starting out, I was part of a large cohort of extremely high performing women (and men). Within the first 10 years most of us had moved on. I know for myself the visible and invisible barriers to career progression just became too much to bother fighting so I looked for different options.

Many firms have invested in a wide range of initiatives, from women’s networks to unconscious bias training. But they do not seem to be yielding results. So many initiatives, so little real progress.

Getting results is going to take some different approaches. I still see a lot of tinkering around the edges and box ticking and this is reflected in WGEA data on slow progress on gender equality within the legal industry.

The silver lining of COVID may be that it has forced radical change on some of the traditional mindsets, challenging the how and where work gets done thereby disrupting some of the old systems holding change back. However, this alone is unlikely to be enough.

Research shows that business leaders often have a varied understanding, readiness and ownership of gender equality and the barriers to women’s progression. At each career stage different practices operate to undermine gender equality. These practices include a lack of transparency in recruitment and promotion, a focus on recruiting and promoting people based on ‘cultural fit’ without any consideration as to whether the culture might not be inclusive, and a lack of parental support to name a few.

Across a career, these different practices have a cumulative effect that maintains men’s overrepresentation in leadership. Women are not given the chance to step up because they are not given the same business opportunities or support as men.

However, research has confirmed that sponsorship has been a critical factor in the career progression of female CEOs.

Sponsorship involves the forming of strategic alliances between senior leaders and female talent within an organisation. A sponsor advocates for their sponsee and provides them access to different opportunities and an opportunity to shine in front of senior leaders, which in turn leads to pathways for promotion. Cultivate helps senior leaders build sponsorship relationships with emerging female leaders, to both retain and promote them.

The reason this is so critical for gender equality is that currently men naturally informally sponsor other men, and so Cultivate breaks this norm and acts to build leaders’ awareness and ownership of gender equality within the organisation.

Sponsorship isn’t just a benefit for the sponsee; done properly the sponsorship relationship provides critical opportunities for personal growth and development of leadership skills for the sponsor as well.

My successful career journey is a direct result of sponsorship. I am passionate about sponsorship as I have received the benefits of it. I was fortunate to have some extremely generous leaders, who took me under their wing and advocated for my growth and progression.

Sponsorship is the serious action needed to see direct results in your organisation.

Want to know more about how sponsorship can work for your business? Contact us.


Katriina Tahka, Co-CEO.