6 ways Gilbert + Tobin drives client and firm success through gender diversity

There have been six keys to successfully improving gender diversity within Gilbert + Tobin (G+T), according to its head of HR Anna Sparkes

There have been six keys to successfully improving gender diversity within Gilbert + Tobin (G+T), according to its head of HR, who explained that its progressive diversity strategy has resulted in a number of tangible business and client benefits.

G+T currently leads the legal industry in gender diversity, with the highest proportion of female equity partners (35 per cent) among the major top-tier firms in Australia, and recently introduced a new target to increase the representation of women in its partnership to 40 per cent by 2023.

Overall, the firm has 59 per cent female lawyers and women also make up 68 per cent of senior management roles within the firm (excluding partners).

While there was no specific business case or issue that triggered a focus on gender diversity within the firm, Anna Sparkes, chief people officer for G+T, explained that while the firm had maintained a level of female partners above 30 per cent for a number of years, it hadn’t grown this figure to “the next critical level”.

“Setting a target to increase the representation of females in our partnership to 40 per cent by 2023 is driven from a strong desire in the firm to place some additional focus on this area to deliver further improvement,” she explained.

G+T managing partner Danny Gilbert also said that with clients increasingly looking for firms who can deliver high quality, innovative outcomes for them in their most defining, complex times, leaders need to attract the best talent in the market and assemble diverse teams who can bring unique perspectives, experiences and skill sets to the table.

“We need to take decisive action towards creating a fully gender-balanced partnership, redressing the financial disadvantages and impact of caring responsibilities that fall disproportionately on women and making flexible work practices a reality for all our people,” he said.

“This is critical to enable both men and women to better balance their work and personal commitments.”

“We have focussed on developing a culture where partners, senior lawyers and senior managers embrace gender and all other forms of diversity”

Gilbert explained that genuine initiatives to improve gender diversity in the firm are not “quick-fixes” but are instead designed to drive a structural shift to ensure the firm is providing its people with the right opportunities, tools, policies and environment for them to thrive.

6 key strategies for improving gender diversity
G+T, which has been recognised with an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) since 2014, took a sixfold approach to improving gender diversity across the firm.

“As a starting point, we believe that the key to success starts at a senior level and we have focussed on developing a culture where partners, senior lawyers and senior managers embrace gender and all other forms of diversity,” said Sparkes.

“Our partners are a diverse group from varied backgrounds, who embrace and role-model flexibility; this includes working from home, working part-time and taking parental leave.”

A couple of male partners in the firm have taken advantage of the primary parental leave policy with up to 10 weeks of paid parental leave (the firm provides for up to 18 weeks of paid primary parental leave plus three weeks for secondary carers), for example.

Secondly, she explained that G+T has actively promoted an inclusive environment that values different genders, cultures and perspectives.

“This has come through our recruitment process, assessments of candidates, promotions, education and learning (unconscious bias training, for example), and making development and secondment opportunities transparent,” she said.

Thirdly, the firm has experienced a very strong growth trajectory in recent years, and Sparkes said this has resulted in improved career prospects and the opportunity to extend the number of senior positions to internally promote talented people.

For example, the firm recently promoted 13 senior lawyers to partner or special counsel (four of which work part-time and flexibly).

Similarly, the firm is enhancing its talent development program with a focus on creating formal development pathways to build a strong pipeline of internal future leaders (both male and female), establishing a cross-practice senior leader mentoring program and improving the balance of lateral hires.

Fourthly, Sparkes explained that the pause in superannuation earnings that occurs when women take unpaid parental leave has been identified as a contributing factor to the well-known gap in retirement savings for women versus their male colleagues.

“We have adopted an approach that policy doesn’t change things – it’s culture and its adoption that make the difference”

To address this, G+T pays superannuation contributions for primary carers (both male and female) during unpaid parental leave for up to one year.

Fifthly, the firm has adopted a positive culture to flexible working, backed by an implementation of progressive policies around this area, including part-time and job-sharing roles, formalised flexible hours, policies and tools for employees to work remotely and the ability to purchase extra leave.

To demonstrate, its ‘Project Wings’ initiative provides employees with a state-of-the-art IT hardware kit (including a full-sized screen and keyboard) to make working from home easier, more productive and safer from an OHS point of view.

“Finally, we do believe that what gets measured gets done; we report regularly to our G+T Board on diversity initiatives and how we are tracking with promotions, pay reviews, and recruitment,” said Sparkes, who added that G+T’s remuneration policy remains gender neutral and regular pay-gap analysis demonstrates the firm’s performance-driven approach to compensation.

A culture of gender diversity
To help support these strategies, Sparkes said there have been a number of operational and more practical keys to success to help support culture change around gender diversity and adoption of related policies by the business.

“Our founding partner Danny Gilbert has advocated for gender diversity, particularly in public forums,” said Sparkes, who added that Gilbert is also a WGEA pay equity ambassador while G+T also provides senior sponsorship of the Diversity Council of Australia.

“We have also actively ‘walked the walk’, with senior leaders in the firm acting as role models,” she said.

“As examples, we’ve had male partners take 3 months of paid parental leave and both male and female partners formally arranging to work flexibly via part-time hours, remote working or changed hours.”

“The most effective way to make a difference is via real demonstrated advocacy and this is most effective if it comes from partners, rather than through HR initiatives alone”

The firm’s partners and broader workforce are actively engaged on policy changes, with input and suggestions requested to drive practical solutions.

“We have an established diversity council, with representation from the partner level through to paralegals – this group actively assesses how we are tracking and makes suggestions to drive solutions,” she said.

A recent engagement and culture survey (with an internal completion rate of 79 per cent) found that 91 per cent responded favourably to the WGEA question “My partner/manager genuinely supports equality between genders.”

“We have adopted an approach that policy doesn’t change things – it’s culture and its adoption that make the difference,” said Sparkes.

“The most effective way to make a difference is via real demonstrated advocacy and this is most effective if it comes from partners, rather than through HR initiatives alone.

“Importantly, we have adopted a culture that encourages people to ask questions and speak up.

“As more clients are asking for demonstrated focus in diversity initiatives, we also need to understand the real business benefits of the change.

“Our diversity policy needs to be more than just a ‘nice to have’; if we wish to be a leading law firm, we need to attract and retain the best lawyers – and these are a diverse group of people.”

Firm and client benefits
The outcomes of gender diversity initiatives have both internal firm-wide and client impacts, according to Sparkes.

The majority of clients are now treating the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives with significant importance – “so much so, that we are being asked to include such detail in our panel submissions,” she said.

“Candidates who are looking for new roles, or even graduates who are finishing law school are more informed and ask specific details about our diversity and inclusion initiatives,” she added.

“These are often a key differentiator between ourselves and other firms who may not be as progressive.

“While we can’t comment specifically on the financial benefits of these initiatives for the firm, we are confident that some of our growth and prosperity has stemmed directly from our reputation, approach and action to progressive gender diversity.”