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Key takeaways: Gender equity and inclusion in a world of social distancing

May 19, 2020

In this Burford Briefings webcast, Quinn Emanuel National Trial Practice Co-Chair and Equity Project Champion Tara Lee talked with Burford VP Jessica Woodhouse about promoting gender equity and inclusion during remote working and lockdown, touching on how being forced to work from home will benefit women in the long run, what makes a good leader and what lockdown life with five college students is really like.

Much of the global legal workforce is now working remotely. In a world which still sees women taking on the lion’s share of domestic tasks, how can women lawyers remain visible and proactive while working from home?

Jessica Woodhouse: Studies suggest that working mothers spend almost twice as much time on household chores and childcare as their male partners. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the exigencies of the current crisis have, if anything, exacerbated that domestic gender gap. But I do not think it has to be this way.

Tara Lee: My husband and I have been quarantining with five college students (our three sons plus two friends) and our 9-year-old son. We have a larger than normal family workforce that can share domestic tasks here, but in the early stages of lockdown, I still found myself trying to shoulder all the dinner-preparation responsibilities for the group while managing a work-from-home litigation caseload that didn’t slow down at all. It became clear to me really quickly that this was not sustainable, so we drew up a schedule.  We assigned the dinner responsibility to sets of two of the college kids 3 or 4 nights a week, and my husband and I each please to cook no more than once.  This turned into a prime opportunity for my young adult sons to learn some domestic skills.

It also made for some great dinner conversations too, about what made me want to automatically take on the second shift of work for dinner, the way I would have expected to if they’d all been here for a school holiday or long weekend.  These are college students who have not yet experienced any workplace biases.  To their fresh eyes and minds, divvying up domestic responsibilities, especially while they’re also observing my workday as the objectively busiest in the house, made complete sense. 

Jessica Woodhouse: There could be some benefit to this time, in the sense that it is allowing those who don’t typically take on domestic tasks to see close up and first-hand what goes into running a household and thus better appreciate the burden that comes with being a family’s “Chief Operating Officer”.

Tara Lee: Another positive to come out of this is that I think it will really normalize the parent-working-from-home experience, and it might shift our collective thinking on the ideal worker paradigm.   I am having Zoom calls now with male partners, co-counsel and clients who I think it's fair to guess have never taken work calls from home before. It’s the associates on my team who are young moms that are knocking this out of the park. 

And there are probably different perspectives on this, but for my part, I also think it’s good that my husband has now had the experience of his colleagues seeing (and more frequently, hearing) our family in the background of the call. That happening everywhere helps destigmatize that experience it for every mother, or father who is in the same family position. It’s foreign to almost no one now.

Jessica Woodhouse: The lockdown could be an equalizer in that it demonstrates working from home is possible and that those working from home are not less productive or committed than those who typically work in the office.

What strategies can working parents incorporate to best manage their time during this period of uncertainty?

Tara Lee: This forced working from home has helped me to become more efficient and professional at working remotely—something that I already thought I was doing well. As I heard myself helping the college kids here with working from home efficiently, organizing each work station, segmenting out each day, I had a chance to review my own practices.

Normally when working from home I would not dress for work; I have to now because suddenly no one just talks on the phone, now we all zoom every call!   But I find it improves focus, and it's definitely something I’ll make a regular practice. I also now force schedule the coffee break with a colleague that we would have taken at work. I would never have thought about those things when I worked from home in the past, and I am infinitely more productive because of them.

Do we think that the current situation will create a change in working culture where presenteeism still exists?

Tara Lee: This has been the most interesting aspect of quarantine for me.  My firm has a zero-facetime policy, so to some extent, at first I thought of quarantining at home as business as usual for most of us. But I definitely think I’m seeing and reading about a shift in work values across the profession, as everyone draws more accustomed to this at-home arrangement. The New York Times published an article recently to the effect that the pandemic may be good for women across all professions because it might alter the perception of the ideal worker paradigm. The article made a lot of sense to me applied to law, where I think the perception of the ideal worker as the one logging the most facetime at work has definitely historically disadvantaged the advance of women in law firms. The person who most wants to do kid drop off and make it home for dinner, or be the person on call to pick up sick children from school, will always score the least face time. My hope is that at least in the legal profession, this national quarantine experience will drive out the last vestiges of this  “facetime” culture from our profession.  There’s nothing objectively valuable about trying to be the first person to the office and the last person to leave every day. That kind of culture kills off a lot of young talent, male and female, as they become parents. But I think the pandemic experience has helped changed that paradigm at least a bit. 

When I was an associate and worked in places with a facetime culture, I was definitely resentful anytime my work was done but I was still unable to leave until the last partner left the building.  That was torture when I would much rather have been at home form the evening with my small child.

Hopefully, this has heightened our awareness as to how efficiently some people can work remotely.  It may even have made some senior people who might never have tried to work from home appreciate that it's entirely possible to do good work that way.

What opportunities are there for professional career growth in self-isolation?

Tara Lee: There are two areas where this has opened up some opportunities and both are a  function of the fact that we just have more time now. Most (not all, but nearly all) litigation case dockets enjoyed a least a brief schedule respite. This has given everyone a chance to draw a deep breath and a chance to approach the work in a more thoughtful and intentional way. As a result, I’m not only seeing some incredibly high-quality work, but I’ve had much deeper conversations with women about how they want to approach their careers than we’ve ever had time for before. When you are dealing with a full caseload and getting your hours in, you can give short shrift to looking at the full arc of your career growth and mapping out a career path for yourself.

Secondly, the quality of nonbillable scholarship that lawyers have been able to turn out during this period has really improved—a lot of people used the time to turn their attention to topics that they are really passionate about.  I’ve loved reading the output these more personal contributions to the profession.

Research from the IMF suggests that the Lehman Brothers collapse in the last financial crisis may have been avoided if it had more women at the top. Why is it more important than ever to have women in senior positions during a downturn?

Jessica Woodhouse: This question reminds me of the conversation around women in government positions dealing with the pandemic better than many of their male counterparts. To an extent, there is probably some self-selection bias in the sense that as a female politician you must be one of the best at what you do to rise to a position of power. But I think there is also something to be said about the diversity of perspective and experience that women and less well-represented groups bring to companies, law firms, and nations.

Tara Lee: I think the best data available to answer this question is in the  CEO Genome project.  They studied 17,000 C-suite executives from companies ranging from the Fortune 100 down to $10 million businesses. As part of the 10-year study, they interviewed the board, the customers, and the leadership of these companies about the leadership traits of CEOs.

The final report was published in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago and revealed the kind of things that are both shocking and obvious: there were two character traits found most likely to lead to a CEO getting the job: charisma and self-confidence.  But when they looked at the character traits that correlate with a CEO being good at the job — when they measured CEO performance at raising the stock value and other performance metrics and tried to determine what character traits were most common in CEO’s who were actually successful, they found that charisma and self-confidence mattered not at all – no correlation. This shouldn’t have surprised me at all.  CEO character traits that they found drive a company’s actual success were basically the character traits that I was taught to value the military before I became a lawyer: things like humility, emotional intelligence, resolve, and selflessness. When I read that CEO Genome article a few years ago, it just leapt out at me that charisma and self-confidence are character traits we often readily attribute to male candidates for leadership jobs, and it's very easy to mistake bravado and bombast in a big, loud male for confidence and charisma.  It’s much harder to see the confidence and charisma in the quieter, smaller female candidates.  But if you grade the people on your teams objectively, I bet you would find that a disproportionate amount of the women score well in humility, emotional intelligence, resolve, and selflessness.  I think the IMF research is keying on the same thing.  Women demonstrate a lot of those characteristics naturally.   

Around the same time that the CEO Genome project came out, I was reading Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last. He writes about how Marine Corps officers are taught to make sure that when they’re out in the field their subordinates get food before they do—they are told to be last in the chow line— teaching them to demonstrate selflessness because people will follow someone who is selfless. I almost laughed out loud picturing every mother at a dinner table ever—mothers are inherently the most selfless people on the planet.

So if you have any trouble at all remembering what traits to place value on as you are selecting leaders in your organization, instead of just letting instinct govern (remember that the CEOP Genome project teaches us our instincts are wrong) try just remembering that the most important qualities in a leader are  “HERS”— for humility, emotional intelligence, resolve, and selflessness — and you’ll end up choosing the leaders who will actually have strong leadership skills, whether they are male or female.

With the global pandemic and resulting downturn front of mind, gender equity and inclusion may not be high on the list of law firm priorities. What can law firms and companies do to foster collaborative and social environments in a world of social distancing?

Tara Lee: The UN and the World Economic Forum have said that the pandemic will have a disproportionate and incredibly negative impact on women because they are the primary caregivers and because they are disproportionately represented at the poorest levels of our country. It’s a great reminder for me that while I am quietly enjoying how positive I think this is going to be for my profession, I have to also remember that this is really catastrophic for large swathes of the population. There are women who are not even going to be recognized in the statistics, who can’t get unemployment because their child care or domestic help job wasn’t even on the books.

In the professional environment, there is a lot of scholarship on how to be an inclusive leader through this crisis. We should actively check in on those who might be disproportionately impacted and do things like beginning meetings by acknowledging everyone in the room.

I have noticed that on Zoom meetings there are, of course, those in the team who don’t speak unless you call on them. This has really forced me to be aware of that and arrange my meetings so that the quieter women in the group do not go unrecognized.

I have also become more cautious that the women on the team who are the more visible caregivers are not put in positions where they feel self-conscious about the timing of the meetings. There are a lot of ways that you can be sensitive and prioritize inclusion. If it is not now, it’s never.

As clients face increased pressure to do more with less, they look to their law firms to be proactive in offering innovative solutions to their needs. How can you best serve your clients and become a trusted advisor through financial difficulties?

Tara Lee: Initially I thought the most valuable thing we could do for our clients was to see around the corner. We spend a lot of time and thought trying to predict what problems our clients will face. When this crisis hit, the impulse to be helpful came from a very sincere and genuine place. There was the urge to produce something in writing that could be useful to clients who are about to face very difficult decisions.

As this has continued much longer than I imagined at first, I actually think there is a much simpler answer—the best thing we can do to serve our clients is just to call them. I am calling people who I’ve not spoken to in years, and not because I want work from them. I call because people who I know have been very ill or someone they know has been very ill. Businesses that I thought would never struggle are now in real trouble.

I have reconnected with people I haven’t talked to in years and that’s incredibly fulfilling and meaningful and in some cases helpful—you never know what innovative solution you might be able to think up for your clients. They are dealing with things now that no one could have predicted. Even with the intellectual firepower of this profession, we are not going to guess this right.  Sometimes the best thing is to just call and connect and check-in.

Jessica Woodhouse: Hopefully as a result of this situation we get over our reticence to pick up the phone and just have a conversation. Offering your voice brings some humanity to the role that you are playing as a trusted advisor, in addition to whatever help and legal advice you can give.

Legal finance can be a crucial tool for law firms whose clients have constrained budgets. How can women lawyers use Equity Project capital to help corporate clients recover value for their organizations?

Tara Lee: Companies that might have pursued litigation claims in the next year now may not be willing to take on the risk of pursuing a claim given the constraints on capital. That is exactly what litigation funding is there to help with.

To the extent that you work with a client or are a company that finds itself facing that difficult decision, I would urge everyone in that position who has a claim to consider The Equity Project as an option. It is one situation where you can advance a good cause while solving the risk equation as well.