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Does your workplace ‘women’s initiative’ actually help you?

/ Nov 20, 2012 10:23AM / Print / ()

Does your workplace ‘women’s initiative’ actually help you?

If you're a woman in a large professional services firm, you probably have access to some kind of "women's initiative" to help you advance your career.

These groups have become par for the course for organisations attempting to retain a pipeline of female talent. They sit alongside, or as the overarching umbrella for, mentoring programs, networking events and special training initiatives. They're some of the boxes organisations can tick on strategies for "retaining and promoting women".

But how much good do they actually do?

According to a new report by the National Association of Women Lawyers Foundation (NAWL) in the United States, initiatives such as "women's forums", "women's committees" and "women's networking groups" (or whatever you want to call them) may not be achieving all that much at all.

While the survey focuses specifically on the US, the data may be able to provide some insights locally, given it looks at the scope and structure of women's initiatives that are widely shared across the Western world.

The study explored the mission statements, objectives, finances and activities associated with women's initiatives within the Am Law 200, which is the reference point used to describe the largest law firms in the country.

Across the Am Law 200, just one in seven equity partners are female, compared to one in two associates. And not much has changed since the NAWL Foundation started conducting an annual review of the retention and promotion of women in law firms in 2006, despite the fact there's been a significant trend in establishing firm-wide "women's initiatives". In Australia, the female partner rate is still below 20% at most of the country's large law and accountancy firms. Firms here have also followed a trend of developing women's initiatives, and yet also seen little wide-scale improvement on the proportion of women in their leadership positions.

The problem may come down to a lack of focus.

According to the survey, firms can work to address the problem. First, given 97% of firms already have such initiatives established, firms should move these to the next stage: set goals and measurable objectives, subject the initiatives to annual reviews and evaluation, and identify ways to better target female staff with their programs to better suit their different career levels. Importantly, these initiatives need substance: while 75% of women's initiatives were found to have a "written mission statement", the survey found a few were short, direct and to the point, but most involved a combination of abstract goals. Statements like "fostering change" and "creating networking opportunities" are difficult to translate into methods that will actually assist career advancement.

Second, the report suggests that firms address the fact their women's initiatives are woefully underfunded. The fact a typical law firm in the US spends less on its women's initiative than on the salary of a first-year associate should really say it all.

Meanwhile, it seems too much time and energy is being spent on "soft" aspects of a firm's women's initiative – particularly, internal networking. The report found networking was seen as "favourable" by staff within firms, especially when it involved networking with men, but that the benefits of networking must be evaluated against the broader data available.

In the firms studied, plenty of internal networking options for women were identified – and yet all had done little to chance female partner numbers.

Are you part of a women's initiative in your organisation? Does it help? Is it well-funded and strategic in its mission? Leave your thoughts below.

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