The CEO who pushed for quotas and got much more

Pushing for quotas is not usually the first port of call for a newly appointed CEO.

But Maddocks CEO Michelle Dixon did just that when she took on the top job earlier this year. Having formerly sat on the law firm's board as the only woman represented, she wanted to make sure women weren't left out of such positions again.

Dixon asked the partnership to vote on a quota system that would ensure one of the board's partner-elected positions was always held by a woman. It was a simple, effective measure that got the partners asking why so few women occupy senior management positions of law firms in the first place.

"I'm someone who is an advocate for quotas," Dixon tells Women's Agenda. "And so I proposed a quota for the board. What resulted was a full discussion about why it was needed, and that really flushed out some of the unconscious bias issues we had. Having that conversation increased people's awareness of the problem."

Now, the board is 50% occupied by women.

Law firms have traditionally not had a good record when it comes to women in senior leadership positions. While the gender breakdown of partnership are often used as a measure of success – and such numbers are still not good, with many of our largest firms still barely cracking the 20% female mark – Dixon believes more emphasis needs to be placed on gender diversity higher up the management chain, including at the CEO and managing partner level.

Dixon is now one of a tiny number of women leading this country's top 20 law firms, joining King & Wood Mallesons managing partner Sue Kench and following Henry Davis York's Sharon Cook officially stepping down from the top spot this week to join King & Wood as managing partner (clients) this week.

"I never thought being a woman was an impediment to a legal career, but looking at the management level it's always been male heavy," she says. "Culture should be driven from the top end and that culture needs to reflect the diversity of the firm."

Dixon says she grew up always believing women could pursue high-achieving and ambitious careers, and encountered few issues on her way to being appointed a partner in her early thirties. However, she experienced challenges returning to her practice after her first stint of maternity leave.

She says the firm has since introduced new measures to assist women returning from leave. "We now work to ensure women can hit the ground running when they return, that they can enjoy their leave without having to worry about their practice, and that we can still ensure they move into the senior ranks of partnership and into senior leadership," she says.

"I don't want women to have to worry about how that [taking maternity leave] will impact their career."

Meanwhile, now looking after two young children while also fostering a teenager, Dixon says she's made a number of personal choices in order to pursue and sustain her leadership career.

"I had to give up perfectionism as a concept. I used to make sure everything was perfect in the house, and that the kids were always dressed perfectly. I now accept it's ok if my son has dreadlocks because we haven't take him to the hairdresser in three months!"

To help, Dixon says she also made a clear decision to outsource everything, noting that she was in a fortunate financial position to do so. "That means that when I'm at home with the kids, I'm actually with them," she says.

And while she concedes the travel that comes with the position can be difficult, she also acknowledges that it's just another consequence of the choices she's made.

"Every choice has consequences," she says. "I know that my kids will grow up knowing that if you're a woman you can hold every position in an organisation."

Believing the legal profession still has a lot of work to do when it comes to paying men and women equally, Dixon is an ambassador for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's equal pay campaign. Maddocks is also one of WGEA's 76 Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation holders, announced today.

Check back with Women's Agenda for an interview with HDY managing partner Sharon Cook, who officially steps down from the position this week.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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