evidence based action

I started Searl Street Consulting in 2003 with an intention to develop the people leadership skills of professionals. From the very beginning the leadership skill workshops were attended by 50% women. In larger law firms groups at Senior Associate level were often 80% and it became usual over the years to have some groups composed entirely of women. After fifteen years I’m surprised we still arn’t closer to gender parity in leadership roles - so I went back to the research to look at the evidence and separate it from the activities that were popular, but not working to bring about change in law firms.


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One danger is that UBT (unconscious bias training) is adopted as a quick fix rather than the start of...reflection, discussion and awareness-raising in keeping with cooperative learning approaches...it has the traits of a fad...” (Noon, 2018, 206)

customised for your strategy

One size fit’s all might give a sense of security that a firm is doing the “right things” when it comes to attracting, retaining and promoting women. I’m interested in the “best things” - taking the time and budget available and focusing it on the areas of highest need, of greatest impact of highest return. Sometimes they will be the same as the things that others are doing, often they might not be. Each firm has a unique position in the market, a unique career offering and a unique approach to their clients. It follows that women would leave these firms for unique reasons too.

Diverse teams

The evidence on the value of diverse teams is strong and extensive. What has received less attention is the practical challenges of managing diverse teams, the processes they use to maintain inclusion while performing at a high level and how they manage work life balance. Focusing on team dynamics can make a difference to the motivation and retention of all team members. Efforts that build an understanding of how teams increase their diversity can create good results for individuals, the team and the firm.

all roles flex

Introduced just three years ago in Australia, it’s too soon to tell if this is making a difference to retention and promotion of women. Anecdotal evidence and engagement scores are indicating that it is making a difference to attracting women. The challenge for law firms is making good on the promises made at recruitment. The old challenge of being paid for four and working five, compared with being paid for five and working the weekend is a related challenge. Staff feedback and surveys have an important role to play on these initiatives. Let’s be careful that we don’t delay by surveying to find out what we already know. Better to put the effort into making changes.

unconscious bias training

Training programs without sustained behaviour change can be problematic and unconscious bias training is particularly tricky. Many firms proudly declared that all employees had attended training, and gender results changed slowly. I became curious - always a dangerous thing - so I went looking for evidence to convince me that all that effort was going to get the right result - I just needed to be patient. Unfortunately it became clear that an awareness of unconscious bias improved recruitment processes - but that wasn’t where the problem was - it was in promotion and retention. It’s not a popular view, but it’s based on solid research. For a good starting point, Proff Linda Centore at University of California introduces their resources in the link to the left. Unconscious bias is a broad social topic and the resources provide a good summary. Compare the broad research with with evidence of making a difference in professional settings and the results start to get sketchy. Make contact if you would like to see the summary of the research that doesn’t support unconscious bias training.

Lean In - The evidence is in

An evidence based review of Lean In from the Academy of Management Perspectives was my starting point. I found the information so interesting that I wrote a summary of the findings in a blog back in October 2018. After 800 views and comments from my network around the world - I know how to take a hint. With this new evidence, I’ve revised the programs I facilitate to assist both men and women preparing for leadership roles.

Women leader programs

Leadership programs focused on motivating and retaining women produce results. While the content and format of the programs vary, the results are seen in both retention and motivation. Programs that strike the right balance between personal responsibility and acknowledging the challenge produce results.

Mentoring & sponsorship

One of the earliest types of intervention to increase gender equity and one of the most effective. Unfortunately these programs fell out of favour as the popularity of unconscious bias training increased. The evidence on the effectiveness of sponsorship is strong and it has important implications in a partnership.