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Tips to my male colleagues on creating gender equity in your legal department

Tips to my male colleagues on creating gender equity in your legal department

Tips to my male colleagues on creating gender equity in your legal departmentJen White
Legal Exec

We know the statistics for women ascending to the top ranks in legal leadership aren’t good. Women make up more than 50% of new law school grads, yet when we look at senior attorney ranks, women have largely disappeared. 

From my vantage point, in nearly 15 years of legal practice at both a law firm and in-house, only twice has there been a woman in my management chain—at any level. I’ve only directly reported to a woman once in my career, whereas I’ve reported to seven different men. 

This is why it is critical (and personal) to me that male leaders strive to become better inclusive leaders and help lead the charge on creating inclusive legal departments and firms. 

It also makes business sense for men to be involved. Women are leaving companies and switching jobs in record numbers. They feel like they are being asked to shoulder the work of DEI efforts, but that added work is spreading them thin, and they don’t reap the professional rewards. 

Sobering statistics on women in legal leadership

Let’s start with the good news, there are some signs of progress. In 2022, two out of three new general counsels (the top lawyer) hired at Fortune 500 companies were women, up from 50% in 2021, 42% in 2020, and 28% in 2018. 

But when we look at the overall picture, it is still bleak. 

Only 39% of general counsels at Fortune 500 companies at the end of 2022 were women. Even worse, at law firms, only 1 in 4 equity partners is a woman. Major, Lindsey, and Africa’s 2022 partner compensation survey shows a continued and significant disparity in wages for male partners ($1.21 million) vs. female partners ($905,000), although the gap has been narrowing. 

Why is it so important that men in legal leadership get involved with gender equity?  

It’s critical that men get involved with gender equality work because men still lead our legal teams and set the tone from the top. 

At firms, 75% of equity partners are men and 64% of general counsels are men. In a BCG study, at companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% reported progress, but at companies where men are not involved, only 30% show progress. 

If you’re a leader and you’re not directly and visibly involved in these efforts, you’re demonstrating to the women on your team that inclusion is not one of your priorities. 

While we’re at it, I also want to remind my fellow white women how important it is that we become better allies for our underrepresented colleagues. Despite our gender, we still hold a lot of power and privilege in our legal offices, so these tips apply to us as well.

Let’s do a self-assessment—what kind of ally are you?

Jennifer Brown, a diversity consultant, says that allyship exists on a spectrum. The four stages of male allyship are

• Apathetic: clueless and disinterested regarding gender issues, 
• Aware
: has some grasp of the issues but not at all active or engaged in addressing them), 
• Active
: well-informed and willing to engage in gender equity efforts, but only when asked, and
• Advocate
: routinely and proactively champions gender inclusion.

Thankfully, I’ve only encountered a few men in my professional career still at the “apathetic” stage—and most are on their way out of the profession or have already retired. I’ll assume if you’re taking the time to read this, you’re well into “aware” territory and trying to move up the ladder to “active” or “advocate.” 

In coaching, self-awareness is a prerequisite to sustained change. So once you’ve become aware, here are my five tips for male legal leaders to become better allies and create a more inclusive legal department. 

(Note: I’ve left out the research-backed items that you will learn when you tackle #1—like how women more often receive feedback on personality instead of work product, but there are tons of great resources out there). 

Five tips for become a more inclusive ally and creating gender equity on legal teams

1. Do your own homework

Demonstrate your commitment to becoming a better ally by diving in, like you would when learning any new legal subject. 

Don’t rely on female colleagues or DEI HR partners as your primary education on gender equality. The women on your team are busy enough trying to do their jobs well (and often balance unpaid caregiving requirements that are still unequal in our society). We will notice when you make an effort to learn—it is still, unfortunately, quite rare to see. 

Not sure where to start? I’ve included a starter reading list below. 

2. Sponsor women

Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. If you are wondering what the difference is, please see #1. Leaders tend to sponsor the people who they identify with. 

I’m guilty of this—most of my sponsees have been women. But if leadership is nearly all white men, women and other underrepresented groups will get left out of sponsorship if that sponsorship isn’t intentional. 

If you are a senior leader, grab a sheet of paper and physically write down the list of the people you sponsor; these are the people in your organization, whether or not they are in your reporting chain, that you go to bat for when new roles are open, or promotions are under discussion. Do they represent the change you want to see in the future? If not, reach out and invite someone you’d like to learn more about to lunch. Which brings me to rule #3.

3. Socialize with women

Or, alternatively, do not follow the Mike Pence/Billy Graham rule. In 2017 Mike Pence noted that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. 

A survey by Lean In and Survey Monkey showed that nearly half of all male managers in the U.S. said they were uncomfortable participating in basic activities with women. Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have dinner alone with a junior woman than with a junior man and are 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work alone with a woman. 

This is a huge problem. Relationships matter. Your socialization at work needs to be gender-neutral. If you’re concerned about this, have a chat with your HR partner or a close advisor to get to the root of the issue. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to spend time with a colleague of the opposite sex. 

And if you can’t, then cut out all socializing with colleagues, regardless of gender. 

4. Notice when you’re in male-dominated spaces

When you’re in all-male spaces or male-dominated spaces, you can model the right behavior as a leader. If you see something, say something. If someone shares a tasteless joke, your silence as a leader signals acceptance.

Also, if you are in an all or mostly-male space, sit with that for a moment. How would it feel if conversely, the space was all female? Should the space you’re in look like this, why is it this way? Know that your women colleagues are frequently in spaces where they are the only. This is especially common for women of color. Trust me, they notice it. It is uncomfortable. 

5. Create diversity programs that focus on more than just trying to change women

DEI programs shouldn’t consist entirely of lunches and trainings aimed at women or spa days focused on client development. This tells women it is our issue, and not a systemic one. 

For every woman that you send to a leadership program, also send the men on your team to training on how to be a better inclusive leader. And make sure that the commitment doesn’t end when women go to trainings, it needs to be combined with sponsorship and support throughout their journeys to partner or senior leader. Take a broader look at your department, the pipeline to leadership, the culture, neurodiversity, sexual orientation, etc. and become a true leader who is the most visible advocate in your organization. 

The women on your team will notice and thank you. 

Reading list for men who want to create gender equity at work: 


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