Research. Reveal. Refocus

Female partners: More difficult than turning an oil tanker

December 7th, 2012 |

The results of the end-of-year partnership survey show increasing the proportion of female partners in law firms is more difficult than  turning an  oil tanker.  There was a 4.8% growth in female partner numbers in the last 12 months, while male partner numbers actually declined slightly.

However, this seems to have less to do with the numbers of women being appointed, than predominantly male senior partners retiring. In fact, the percentage of women making partner has been steady at around 30% since 2011, after increasing from 25% in the December 2010 survey.

Getting more than three women in 10 new partners seems to remain a barrier both in the profession here, and in the Am Law 200 in the US, where female appointments also track at 30%. Again, out of the firms that made more than four appointments, only three appointed 50% or more women partners: Allens, Lander & Rogers and TressCox.

Analysis of the data shows that women are more likely to be appointed in firms with a higher proportion of women already in the partnership. It also overturns a common myth: that mid-tier firms as a group are more progressive on gender than top-tier or international firms. Some rank very well, others poorly, in this analysis.

Beaton Legal profession how women fair

However, the continuing barriers women face in moving to senior roles in the profession are highlighted by fact that in Australia’s largest commercial firms, women make up 58% of solicitors but only 21% of non-equity partners. And the higher you go, the fewer women you find.

Beaton Legal gender comparison

What then, are the causes? In June this year the Grattan Institute released its report Game changers: Economic reform priorities for Australia. In it the Institute nominated increasing female workforce participation as a major reform priority, pointing out that Australia’s participation rate is significantly lower than those of comparable countries, most notably Canada. The Institute found that:

  • Until their mid-20s men and women have very similar participation rates.
  • Female participation rates then decline until women reach their mid-40s, as women move from full-time to part-time employment.
  • The main driver for this shift is women having children. Women with children are more likely to work part-time, and more women work part-time the more children they have.
  • As a result, men work longer hours in their 20s and 30s, positioning them better for senior roles in their 40s and 50s. This means that men will end up with most of the top jobs.

While the challenges women in law firms are clearly not limited to having children and part-time work, there is no doubt these are major issues. What, then, makes it hard for women to stay in fulltime roles when they have children? The most obvious reason is that women still take most responsibility for raising children. Combining this role with a busy practice, irregular hours and demanding clients for more than three days a week may simply be too challenging for many women (let alone men).

The Grattan Institute’s analysis provides one further reason: childcare funding and the tax system create a significant financial disincentive for women to work more than three days a week. A female solicitor with two children earning a full-time equivalent salary of $150,000, and whose partner  also works, takes home only 40c of every dollar earned for their fourth or fifth day in the office. Those on $100,000 take home a paltry 32c in the dollar.

However, these economy-wide factors are but part of the explanation for the low numbers of senior women in the law. As Beaton’s analysis of the 2011 census data show, the accounting profession today has a far better gender balance than the law.

Beaton Women accounting compared to legal

Women make up just over half of the profession for every age group up until 48 year-olds, when it drops off. For the legal profession however, women move into the minority nearly a decade earlier, at age 39. It is no coincidence that this is the same age at which transitions to partnership are either been established or finalised. Clearly then a large part of the problem is specific to the profession.


Change like this is like turning an oil tanker. There is a lot of inertia working against the change, both within the profession and in the wider economy. But there is no doubt, however, that the pace at this point seems slow. Still, three firms did appoint more women than men. If this number continues to grow, it will be a sign the tanker is finally turning.

Tristan Forrester, Director: Professions, Beaton Research + Consulting.

An edited version of this article appeared in the The Australian’s Legal Affairs section on 7 December.

Posted in Legal, Professional Services | Comments Off on Female partners: More difficult than turning an oil tanker

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