More Than a Seat at the Table: Women Leaders in LegalTech on Gender Equity
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “embracing equity.” The theme challenges us to consider why “equal opportunities are not enough” and reminds us that allies are “incredibly important for the social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women.”
This challenge, presented to both women and allies alike, to keep striving for gender equity and resist settling into complacency seems particularly fitting in 2023. The past year has brought with it a growing acceptance that the only constant we can depend on is change. Three years after a global pandemic altered our world, there seems to be a growing acceptance that this constant state of unpredictability and volatility across the global economic, social, political, and ecological environments, may be “the new norm” we all talked about in 2020.
This broader acceptance of instability brings with it a silver lining: A parallel realization that we cannot afford to wait for “things to return to normal” in order to continue fighting for gender equity. If we do, we risk backsliding and losing the ground that generations of women before us fought so hard to gain. For example, studies have shown that women and girls are more negatively impacted by global economic crises than men, and that the recent rise in inflation rates more negatively impacts women than men. Now more than ever, it is imperative to remain focused on the fight for gender equity.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, Lighthouse invited six leaders in the legal industry to provide their perspectives and advice on this topic:
- Ashley Baynham, Senior Counsel, Litigation, Kaiser Permanente
- M. Alexandra Billeb, Senior Practice Manager, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
- Jeannie E. Farren, Director of Case Management and Technology | eDiscovery and Information Governance, Meta
- Kayann Fitzgerald, Director of eDiscovery & Practice Technologies, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
- Brooke Oppenheimer, Counsel, eDiscovery, Cyber & Data Protection, Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider
- Michelle Six, Partner, Litigation, Kirkland & Ellis
They have each consistently championed women while fighting for broader equity and inclusion within their own careers and practices. Lighthouse is honored to highlight the valuable insight these leaders provided regarding the current state of gender equity and how we can all continue to strive for progress.
In part one of our series, we explore what gender equity means in 2023 and its impact on work and life. And tomorrow, part two will highlight practical advice for achieving greater equity and its benefits in the future.
True gender equity is more than a woman’s presence in a conference room
Before we can discuss how to move forward, we must first define the goal: What would it mean to achieve true gender equity? The overwhelming consensus was that in 2023, a woman’s mere presence in a meeting is not a realization of ‘gender equity.’ Rather, true gender equality comes when women not only have a seat at table, but an equal voice in the conversation:
Gender equity is an intentional awareness that creates the fairness in that “seat at the table” where ideas, views and decisions are exchanged and made. While progress has been made, we still have a long way to go as a society to ensure women’s voices are heard and regarded, not ignored and unnoticed. In the words of the late Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made… It shouldn't be that women are the exception."—Kayann Fitzgerald
True gender equity would mean that women would never have to walk into a conference room wondering what percentage of the participants will be women. It would mean women would never have to wonder if their compensation was equal to that of a male counterpart. The fact that we must still be counted or tallied as “women lawyers” or “women in the industry” is a sign that we have not yet achieved parity. We still have an asterisk next to our name. True gender equity would mean we could eliminate that asterisk. —Michelle Six
Equity for women is having a seat at the table, a voice that is heard, listened to, and respected and equal access to opportunities for leadership. —M. Alexandra Billeb
Achieving equity for women includes ensuring women have a seat at the table, participate in decision-making, and have their perspectives and contributions valued and respected. —Brooke Oppenheimer
With that vision for gender equity in mind, our featured leaders provided a few key suggestions for individuals and organizations seeking to create a more gender equal environment.
Recognize the true value of our differences
A surprising first step toward creating a truly equal environment may be to recognize our differences. At its core, diversity means variety. It means there are real immutable differences between gender identification, between races, between religions, between sexual orientations, between nationalities, etc. Rather than trying to erase those differences, individuals and companies must recognize those differences:
A truly equitable world would not only give equal opportunities to women in the workplace—it would also be fully appreciative of our differences. If you look across certain industries where equal opportunities are given, there's still minimal accounting for societal and biological differences between women and men. Those differences may take a variety of forms. For example, differences in the economic status between men and women due to systemic pay inequities, differences in the mental and physical workload women often carry compared to male partners in family units, differences in the communications styles due to generational gender bias and social pressure on women, etc. A truly equitable workplace must recognize and account for those differences. —Ashley Baynham
Only once we recognize our differences, can we then recognize and account for the true value (both intangible and monetary) those differences bring to the table:
Gender equity and other diversity and equity efforts should not be relegated to a ‘nice to have’ or be put on a shelf during times of economic volatility. Having different and diverse voices represented in the room provides a real and significant value to our clients and to the business as a whole. Without it, we retreat into the predictability of hearing the same voices over and over in an echo chamber. We miss out on new and innovative ideas and lose the potential to learn from a diverse group of people who bring different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds to the table. —Michelle Six
Once the value of diversity is accounted for, companies and law firms are less likely to marginalize equity efforts during times of economic volatility.
Recognize that gender equity is not just a “women’s rights issue”
In the same vein, individuals and companies are more likely to focus on rectifying gender inequities when they can clearly see how these solutions will be beneficial to a broader group.
There are systemic equity issues that I don’t know how we will address as individual organizations until there is a shared societal understanding that these are issues that affect everyone—this is an obstacle at the very core. —M. Alexandra Billeb
We must stay focused on providing opportunities and platforms to empower women to build each other up, while continuing to tear down stereotypes and create cultures focused on the equity mission. The quote, “Gender equality is not a woman’s issue, it is a human issue. It affects us all,” speaks loudly to this point. —Kayann Fitzgerald
Historically, we have seen this dynamic play out on a larger stage. When we look back at the history of women’s rights, we can see that the equity issues that women have been fighting for generations (equal educational and career opportunities, better and more affordable childcare options, financial and wage equity, etc.) are not specific to women—they are broader human rights issues.
I am fortunate to have a mother who played a significant role to me and many others regarding equity for women. She continually encouraged and pushed against the status-quo during a time where it was more common for women to be married shortly out of high school, have children, and don the homemaker hat. She networked before networking was a thing, created an enviable career in her chosen profession (nursing) while raising three children…all while scratching, clawing, and climbing the equity ladder, bringing along many a female colleague with her. —Kayann Fitzgerald
Any progress that previous generations of women have made toward gender equity has exponentially made the world a better, more equitable place for everyone.
Equity for women was instilled in me (by my mother) and has deeply influenced my professional endeavors…and now I have a front row seat watching my two daughters create their respective paths and define their “seat at the table.” This awareness, empowerment, and creating access to opportunities is paramount in forming a truly equitable society. —Kayann Fitzgerald
Once viewed in this lens, it is easy to recognize how the work we do today to close gender equity gaps will positively impact future generations, regardless of gender. In fact, many of our featured industry leaders recommend focusing on the next generation as one the best ways to make impactful and real change. No matter our gender or background, we all desire to live in a world where our children are not negatively impacted by stereotypes or biases.
A truly equitable world for women would be one where gender roles are not engrained into young girls, where young women are encouraged to pursue any career that interests them, not just ones which are stereotypically earmarked for women. —Brooke Oppenheimer
I see society evolving from generation to generation in terms of how people think about gender and gender norms. I think the biggest impact we can have on the creation of a more equitable society for women continues to push for that evolution—and that starts with our children. It means stamping out perceptions of gender bias in young kids, and remaining cognizant of the unconscious biases that can develop in children. It means working to ensure that my young son and daughter know they can both play with dolls and they can both play with trucks. We need to continue to evolve past the idea from older generations that "this is for boys and this is for girls." —Ashley Baynham
This recognition of the universally beneficial impact of closing gender equity gaps is also exemplified in in other areas traditionally associated with the fight for gender equality. For example, one area of significant improvement noted by many of our featured industry leaders was a change to more flexible work environments. Law firms especially have typically required associates to work long hours in an office in order to secure a partnership. Because women have traditionally held the role of primary caregivers in family structures, this requirement led to a high percentage of women dropping out of big law in favor of less structured work environments. For this reason, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight for more flexible schedules and remote work options was often primarily framed as a gender equity issue. But when the world shut down in 2020, millions of employees experienced the benefits of more flexible work environments, and pushed back against returning to offices and rigid schedules once pandemic restrictions began to fade.
In terms of improvement, I think that flexible work arrangements have been a real silver lining of the COVID pandemic. We have proven, over and over, that we can be effective at our jobs at home as well as in the office and early in the morning as well as late at night. Successful organizations will be those that understand we can’t go back to 2019 with 9 to 5 schedules worked on site. —M. Alexandra Billeb
Because a broader spectrum of people began to contemplate, recognize, and advocate for the benefits of flexible schedules and remote work options, organizations were pressured to make real, structural changes.
In the same vein, many law firms and corporations have also made progress in broadening “maternity leave” to include “paternity leave” or “family leave,” due in part to the increasing diversity of modern family structures. Because there are now more voices advocating for the need for paid time off to spend with new children (beyond just the traditional paradigm of mothers who gave birth to biological children), many companies have begun to broaden their parental leave benefits. In turn, as more people experience the benefit paid time off provides to new parents and children, we can expect increasing advocacy for companies to open that same door for other types of caregivers.
I have seen great improvement in work flexibility and a huge commitment to maternity and family leave for both men and women. However, I know that the private sector still fails to position family leave equally. Whether you’re adopting an infant or a teenager, giving birth via surrogacy, or caring for an elderly or sick family member—all of those scenarios should be afforded the same types of family leave options that an employer provides to any employee. We should be striving for a world where there is a uniform family leave policy. —Michelle Six
To impact change more quickly, women and allies can highlight the broader benefits of closing gender equity gaps. For instance, women often face higher rates of workplace burnout caused by remote working because we are still statistically more likely to be considered the primary caregiver in family structures:
Working remotely for women in particular has essentially blurred all of the lines and guardrails that use to separate home-life responsibilities from work-life responsibilities. I’m seeing burnout now more than ever before, and it has forced me to become more thoughtful and creative around meeting the women on my team exactly where they are in life. This is a moment in time where we have to allow people to own their schedule, to have the flexibility to be present in their lives in ways deemed most important to them, to blaze their own unique trail and to write their own story. —Jeannie E. Farren
While this issue may impact more women than men, it is easy to see how guidelines and tactics that help define clearer boundaries between home and work would be universally beneficial to all remote workers, regardless of gender identity.
The same can be said for broader issues that statistically have a greater and more adverse impact on women, like the pressure to cover gaps in school schedules:
A significant obstacle to gender equality actually lies in the mismatch between school systems and the reality of modern work environments. In order to have career advancement, you have to be showing up at work— undistracted and focused. Unfortunately, our school systems are still working off a 1940s/1950s model of having one parent at home. That simply is not the reality for most families today. Because women often still tend to carry the physical and mental load of being the primary caregiver in a family, that school structure puts added pressure on women to work around school schedules. This pressure often includes taking more time from work than male partners to accommodate weeks of school holidays and vacations, school start, and dismissal times that do not align with traditional work schedules, etc. And those obstacles and pressure impact people with lesser means much, much harder. —Ashley Baynham
Here again, while the issue may impact more women than men, it is easy to see how a better, more modern school system would benefit not only women, but children, families, and those with limited or lesser incomes.
Ultimately, then, the fight for gender equity is a fight for equity for all, regardless of gender identity:
I believe one the biggest obstacles in advancing equity in the workplace is assumptions. In 2023, we need to remove conventional gender roles, especially post-pandemic, to realign, invest, and lean in on workplace equity. —Kayanne Fitzgerald
Once we can quantify and recognize the value gender equity provides to women and others, the next step is to find practical ways to minimize gender equity gaps.
In part two of our series, our featured industry leaders discuss tips and advice for helping us achieve these goals.