Women’s focus: female partners

A recent survey in this magazine shows that across the top 50 firms, while
qualified females account for 35% of total qualified staff, the average
percentage of female partners stands at only 9.7%. In fact, four of those firms
have all male partnerships. This is particularly disappointing given that more
women than men are entering the profession.

The legacy of a male-dominated profession is often cited as an excuse for
such woeful ratios, but statistics show female partnership appointments at the
‘Big Four’ dropped by a third, from 21% in 2006 to only 14% in 2007.

The question must be asked, after a generation of gender equality
legislation, why is it is still so male dominated? Firms all talk the diversity
talk; and emphasise the competition is to recruit and retain the individuals
with most talent, whatever their gender or background. We are talking about
intelligent organisations who understand better than most the financial worth of
talent to an organisation.

The dark days of overt sexual harassment in the workplace are (largely) over,
along with the mentality of ‘women need not apply’. Almost every firm has an
equal opportunities policy, espousing a commitment to diversity. Yet, for a true
cultural change, so that we start to see parity in status and in male to female
partner ratios right to the top, firms must look behind the policy statement in
the staff handbook.

Impeding career progression for women on grounds of gender has long since
been prohibited by discrimination law, yet the glass ceiling remains. To shatter
this once and for all, it is essential to embrace a broad cultural shift
considering what the issues actually are that make it harder for women to remain
following maternity leave or a career break, and eventually make it to the top.

Path to partnership

One obvious area of difficulty is discrimination at the promotion stage.

The classic framework for promotion sees individuals work hard, exhibit their
marketing skills as well as their professional skills, and build up their links
with the clients. As their career advances, their client network forms the basis
of a business case for promotion.

As career progression continues, the marketing skills and the client network
and contacts become increasingly important. In the application for partnership,
the business case is largely based on that client network and contacts.

This means that a woman who goes on maternity leave is at an immediate
disadvantage. She could have spent years building up her contacts but when she
goes on maternity leave, it is inevitable that those contacts are lost or, more
likely, taken over by colleagues. When they return, their ability to present a
business case in the classic partnership application model is severely

Many women find themselves in exactly this situation. They are high flyers,
with the necessary business case. They may be ahead of their colleagues in the
same group or department at the time they go on maternity leave but they return
from maternity leave to find those same colleagues are now in a stronger
position to become partner if they have not already achieved it. Their own
position is significantly worsened in any event because they no longer have the
client network to justify the promotion again using the classic model which
partnerships continue to apply.

It may well be the case that this partnership model is open to challenge
because it is overt sex discrimination and there is no certainty that a tribunal
would accept that using such limited criteria when selecting for promotion is
justifiable under the legislation. Where we have dealt with this issue, a
tribunal has not been required to make a decision because the matter has been
settled but we have no doubt that it is likely to be a significant issue to be
decided by the courts in the very near future.


The statistics in the legal profession, similar to accountancy in terms of
training and career progression, are also a concern, with male to female partner
ratios slightly higher at around the 20% mark; and over 60% of entrants are
female. In one sense, this might be said to indicate progress in moving away
from the legacy ­ but the same surveys reveal that in fact women accounted for
only 21% of total partnership appointments this year, a tell-tale figure that
reveals the ongoing gender equality in the profession.

This is not all that the accountancy and legal professions have in common.
The partnership model of organisational management still dominates both
professions. Could it be that it is the partnership model itself that is to

Partnership was defined at the end of the 19th century, as ‘the relation
which subsists between persons carrying on a business in common with a view of
profit’, a definition which remains in force today.

The ideals of partnership are clear. The default position is that all
partners are equally entitled to take part in management decisions and that ‘no
change may be made in the nature of the partnership business without the consent
of all partners’. Significant management decisions for many partnerships must
therefore be made by unanimous consensus.

The reality is that this can make management decision torturous. It can be no
great surprise then if the requirement to have unanimous consensus, quite apart
from the lengthy and seemingly endless partnership meetings that that may
entail, is also significant in constricting progress.

A clean, simple and democratic system that allow for checks and balances it
may be, but query whether this organisational model is an efficient machinery
for delivering management progress.

Alternative systems are available that do not inhibit the pace of change to
such an extent, allowing organisations to move with the times more freely,
enabling them to implement the values our society has determined are fair and
right. Partnerships sadly lags behind on this.

The introduction of family friendly policies at work is a chief example of
the slowness of partnership institutions to change, since if highly trained and
talented women are to be retained by the profession, following maternity leave
and career breaks, then the transition back to the workplace and leadership in
the workplace must be managed appropriately.

Many employee relations commentators believe the conversion from the
partnership model to a corporate one is the catalyst necessary to foster change
which will lead to successful growth and modernisation.

Clive Howard is an employment lawyer at Russell Jones
& Walker

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