Law Schools all over the world are filled with female students. At IE alone, 59% of law students are female. A fact we confirmed as we gathered in Allen & Overy’s elegant conference room and waited for the panellists to begin. The room filled up quickly with first-, second- and final year students, and a couple Master students – the vast majority of them female. Earlier that week, data from the newspaper Cinco Días, demonstrated that access to the legal profession in Spain is equal. If education is skewed female and legal access is equal, then why are only 19% of partners at large law firms women?
Authors: Paulina Capurro, Inés Aguilar and Andrea Belevan
This was the question that opened the floor for debate at Allen & Overy’s Madrid office during this year’s Women’s Week. Eugenia Castrillón, Executive Director of the undergraduate Law School at IE, led the panel and introduced the panellists. The conversations that followed were so insightful and so effective in unravelling the complexity of issues that women – and men – face in law, that we can only do them justice by bringing them forth word-by-word.
Lupita Prada, IE law student:
“We don’t experience gender inequality right now as students, but we know we will. The law environment is not diverse enough and it’s not only about gender but also about racial and cultural inequality. But since we are here to talk about women, I think the biggest disadvantage is the lack of reconciliation measures between the private and professional life. The cultural expectations placed on women to be dedicated mothers and housewives makes it nearly impossible to lead both a successful private and professional life. I need female models on leadership boards that are everything they’ve ever wanted to be and more, I need them to know it’s possible for me too.”
New generations are looking for gender equality indicators in law firms. Do you think law firms are adapting?
Ignacio Hornedo, Allen & Overy partner:
“There is not a massive change, but the conversations are shifting. Women are more prepared in these conversations than men are. For us it’s a tough conversation; access and career. But I noticed that the younger generations are much better than we are at asking the right questions. What has changed in law firms is the approach to talent; now it’s partners who look for talent and not vice versa. Candidates are more in control of the selection process and we realised because they ask about values, equality, indicators and make decisions based on these. They are asking the right questions which makes us (the law firms) uncomfortable because we are not there yet.”
Unconscious bias is one of the biggest impediments that women encounter when they want to progress in their careers. Is this an issue? Are law firms succeeding in addressing unconscious bias?
Ignacio Diaz, Clifford Chance partner:
“Unconscious bias is, in the end, a survival mechanism, and it is often based on prejudices. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to combat it. We do! And it’s an issue especially in the legal sector, and especially in Spain. Change is driven by the Anglo-Saxon world; law firms in the UK and US are much better than we are. And the main element to fight prejudice is awareness; openly discussing, training associates and assisting seminars and panels… just like this one. But the biggest and main problem I see – which is not specifically related to unconscious biases – lies with the appraisal system in law firms. We are systematically graded like in other sectors, but our performance reviews are based on billable hours. This needs to be reformed because you are missing a big part of the picture.”
Emma Morales, Allen & Overy counsel:
“I agree, measuring performance based on billable hours incentivizes inefficiency. Working longer hours doesn’t make you a better lawyer. If you know you are going to be in the office until midnight, you waste time throughout the day. Having a measure of performance that is based on the logic of ‘the more hours you do the better you are’ is risky – especially for women and small firms. In big firms there is a team big enough to back the lawyer that is missing, in small firms there is simply not enough employee capacity. The muscle of the law firm is crucial in supporting women.”
Marlen Estévez, Roca Junyent partner:
“It’s also a question of culture. In Spain we have a cultural problem of wanting it all; we want to have a coffee break, a long lunch break and to go home early. The only way to change this is through education and introducing flexibility. It’s also a question of results and what you are able to measure. Here I see a transformation happening as external clients demand different things from law firms. What is clear is that we can’t afford to continue losing talent. We need to raise the issue, ask questions, involve management and involve men. So, speak with your male colleagues. It’s a question of co-responsibility at work and at home. I also believe everyone is entitled to work-life reconciliation, not only mothers. Maybe you don’t have children, but you have hobbies.”
Research shows that women underestimate themselves a lot, especially when it comes to salary raises and promotions. Have you seen this? How do you tackle this issue?
“I don’t think we underestimate ourselves, rather we are more self-demanding. We think we need to be perfect to deserve a job or promotion. For example, when women meet 90% of the job requirements, they still think they will not be able to get it. On the contrary, men see themselves on the job when they fulfil 60% of the job requirements. Leadership does not belong to a gender, but most leaders are male, so we think males have the skills. When asked about a female leader many people think of Margaret Thatcher who was called ‘the iron lady’. We lack female referents and those we have we call bossy, fierce, cold…etc. We need to stop thinking that promotions and raises will come on their own just because we have been working hard. We have to fight for ourselves because unfortunately, in this industry, merit does not talk by itself. My advice for women entering the workplace is to step up and speak up. As the Spanish saying goes, ‘el que no llora, no mama’.”
“There is a more complex problem related to how men and women interact. Women don’t want to be exposed to other women’s comments and criticisms. Men don’t care about criticism and exposure as much. But you need to fight the impostor syndrome.”
“I don’t agree, women don’t criticize each other by default. Until now, women who have led have had to behave like men, adopting a male perspective and character to be perceived favourably. But it doesn’t need to be that way. And yes, we need to fight our impostor syndrome and mentor one another, but we should embrace the female perspective that we bring to the table. Don’t lose that female essence!”
“Another saying says that ‘there is a special place in hell for women that do not help other women’.”
Clara Cerdán, FerroAtlántica counsel:
“I agree, and indeed it is the diversity of perspectives that enriches companies. The perspectives that women bring are different to those that men bring. I really believe women and men are complementary. It is not a gender issue but a social responsibility issue. Why shouldn’t we change the culture of how we work? Life is a balance, and everyone has a leader inside, but not everyone’s leadership style is – or has to be – the same.”
What are your thoughts on raising female presence in the Boards of Directors to 40% this year?
Enrique Fayos, Callol, Coca & Asociados associate:
“It would probably not be effective. Quotas of 30% have existed in Spain since 2015, but we are still at 19,9% of women in the corporate world. We are also one of the few EU countries, together with Norway, that have implemented quotas without any sanctions, meaning the law has no effect. Other models like in Italy and France have proven to be more effective. But really the problem is the lack of understanding and ignorance of how quotas work. Before I was also against them, and now I am absolutely pro. The number one misconception is that quotas are applied when two individuals are unequally qualified, but it’s not true. Quotas can only be applied towards the underrepresented gender when candidates are equally good. There is an urgent need for transparency when it comes to quotas.”
This led to the first question from the audience: It seems there are two systems currently, meritocracy and quotas. Which is more effective? Is a balance possible?
“We are a business; we can’t base our choices on anything besides merit. What we can do is set a minimum number of candidates from the underrepresented gender.”
“But merits and quotas are not incompatible. Quotas include merits, always. It’s not one or the other.”
“I think to properly assess merits, we first need to redefine reward and appraisal systems. We can’t forget that merits aren’t only billable hours. If we reform properly, we will achieve the desired quotas.”
Second question from the audience: What can be done to eliminate the conception that it’s women’s responsibility to care for their family?
“I actually read a really interesting study the other day that demonstrated that fathers can be the ‘primary parent’ in the same ‘natural’ way that mothers are. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is active when we are alert. In mothers the amygdala is very active in the first months after the baby’s birth, even in their sleep. In fathers it is significantly less active. But when families lacked a female mother, for example for single-fathers or in homosexual couples, the amygdala was equally active – or even more active in some cases – in the person that took the role of the ‘primary parent’. This means that the notion that motherhood is natural, and fatherhood is cultural is fabricated. Anyone can be and feel and respond like a mother, regardless of gender. So, it’s a question of co-parenting.”
“The idea that women have to be responsible for the family is an unconscious bias. Not only for men but also for women themselves feel this way. We need to become aware of it.”
With these final remarks the evening at Allen & Overy came to a close. It was an inspiring discussion that left us reflecting on the importance of being aware of one’s own unconscious biases, the definition and tacit balance between merit and success, and the genuine establishment of a culture where smart time management is considered healthy and essential for everyone – not just women. Finally, and as Emma concluded, we must always keep in mind that leadership has no gender; it is time to go beyond and elevate towards something higher.
Authors: Paulina Capurro, Inés Aguilar and Andrea Belevan
Andrea Beleván is a Peruvian Corporate Communications & Marketing Master’s student at IE Business School. Before joining IE, Andrea worked in the Animal Health and Nutrition industry, where she led initiatives promoting gender equality in the sector and was awarded by her excellence in performance in the Marketing and Communication team. She completed a BA in Corporate Communications, graduating with a thesis on the ethnographic study of digital communities as a setting for the development of social marketing strategies.
Inés Aguilar is Corporate & Marketing Communications Master Student at IE Business School. Curious about how gender equality contributes to the development of societies, Inés worked in the Women for Africa Foundation and in the EBRD before joining IE. She graduated from a BSc in Translation and Interpreting at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her thesis focuses on the distortion of the feminist message of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own through its Spanish translations.