Gender gap in the legal profession: IBA's Women Lawyers' Committee: Mentorship Toolkit

The International Bar Association (IBA) has launched the Women Lawyers' Committee: Mentorship Toolkit (the Toolkit) with the aim of empowering female legal professionals and addressing the gender representation gap at senior levels. 

With global organisations revealing the business case to address gender disparity, the Toolkit is launched into an environment where there has been an increased focus and shift in perspective on gender equality. Closing the gap is now recognised not just as ‘the right thing to do’, but also ‘the smart thing to do’.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that gender disparity in world societies and labour markets has a US$12tn impact on the global economy. This is equivalent to 16 per cent of global gross domestic product. Furthermore, media reports have revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a greater negative impact on working women than men; women have disproportionately lost jobs and faced a reduction in their working hours while time spent on childcare and household responsibilities has increased.

Lise Lotte Hjerrild, Chair of the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee (IBA WLC), stated: ‘Steadfast commitment is required to achieving the goal of gender, and opportunity, parity, but it is not an insurmountable task. Our new Toolkit provides all the guidance necessary to start a mentorship programme at an organisation’s own pace on its path to true equality, but diversity policies need to be taught and integrated throughout the organisation to be a success. Our goal at the IBA WLC is to help level out the playing field in the legal profession. The Toolkit will help with this ambition, aiding both mentees and mentors in the process and benefitting a firm in its entirety. The IBA WLC urges firms to make use of this Toolkit to empower their female employees.’

Divided into four sections, the Toolkit provides detailed guidance for law firms on how to get started with a mentorship programme. Key advice from the Toolkit includes:

  • Create a mentorship committee: Firms should have a committee in place that will follow up on the design, execution, results and analysis of the programme and to which participants can appeal;
  • Set a clear structure: Defining the core elements of the programme, such as the number of sessions required, the frequency and length of meetings and how many pairs will join is key to success;
  • Match mentors and mentees carefully: Both mentors and mentees should be subject to an application process to assess their suitability for the programme. Mentees should not be in a direct subordinate relationship to mentors and should not be part of the same practice group; and
  • Prepare topics for discussion in advance: Provide reading and/or video materials for both mentors and mentees to prepare for each session. Topics for discussion could include: client management, being part of a team, unconscious bias, diversity and managing working life as a parent.

As research into gender disparity mounts, a report published by the global management consulting firm McKinsey revealed the gender gap is wider in law firms than in other industries and that women are relatively well represented in the professional pipeline until the equity partner level, where women’s representation drops sharply.

Ursula Ben-Hammou, Mentorship Officer of the IBA WLC and Toolkit lead, commented: ‘Change starts from the top. If a law firm’s management is not fully aligned with the process, no programme or policy will ever translate into real change. We need, as a profession, to take the gender gap seriously and not just implement diversity policies out of a sense of “pink washing”. It is not only our duty, but the right business move, going forward. We need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We had been thinking hard about a way to collaborate on this titanic and crucial duty, and wanted to offer something tangible for our members, something they could implement at their firms. Something that can, and will, with true commitment make a difference. The Toolkit has been created for this purpose.’

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentoring programmes boosted minority representation at the management level by nine per cent to 24 per cent, a higher rate of increase compared to other diversity initiatives. The same study found that mentoring programmes also dramatically improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women from 15 per cent to 38 per cent when compared to non-mentored employees.

The IBA Women Lawyers' Committee: Mentorship Toolkit provides firms that may not have the resources to put together a mentoring programme to have a baseline. The Toolkit is detailed enough for firms to use by themselves, without the need for further external consultation and general enough that it will work across continents despite cultural differences. IBA members, human resources professionals and diversity consultants around the world were consulted in the creation of the Toolkit, providing experiences of what has and, equally important, has not worked. Participants at the IBA’s 9th World Women Lawyers’ Conference, which took place in Denmark from 11-13 September 2022, received advance access to the Toolkit. (source: ibanet.org)

Click here to download a PDF of the Women Lawyers' Committee: Mentorship Toolkit.

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