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Why Businesses (and Law) Need Women in Leadership: An International Women’s Day Perspective

Patrick Davis

Written by

Patrick Davis


March 6, 2020

In recognition of International Women’s Day 2020, Smokeball’s former President, and current CRO, Jane Oxley, shares a perspective from running a business in the United States and Australia.

When it was suggested I write something for International Women’s Day (IWD), I initially thought “ugh.” Most of the articles I read around women’s issues make me cringe and offer little helpful information. In fact, twenty years ago when I was new to the workplace, I felt like there was no need for such conversations. The feminist movement was done and dusted, and the playing field was already even in my young mind. My parents had never caused me to limit my career aspirations and I’d attended a female high school with leaders who encouraged me to believe that women could, and did, do anything.

With twenty years of work experience under my belt now, though, I do see things differently. The so-called “boys club” is real. Many women are groomed as children to be polite and not push the envelope. We become mothers and our priorities adjust. And it’s easier to see yourself in a leadership position if women around you are in leadership positions.

The statistics on women in law in the US’s largest law firms clearly illustrate the need for family friendly workplaces (and a change in their business model). Big law is famed for driving its employees to max out those billable hours in order to get on the path to partnership. While women have for some time been the majority of students in law school, in the AmLaw 200 firms we represent 47% of associates, 30% of non-equity partners, and only 20% of all equity partners.

Businesses are missing out

My feeling now as a business leader is overwhelmingly that businesses are missing out if they don’t support women.

Let’s look at some facts. Women hold an average of 25% of board seats at S&P 500 companies. While this number is to me a terrible number, it is up significantly – from just 15% a decade ago.

And, companies with top-quartile representation of women in executive committees outperformed those without women at the top, bringing an average of 47% more return on equity and 55% more earnings before interest and tax.

But at the same time, an analysis of 14 years of market returns across about 1,889 companies finds that when they appointed female directors, they experienced two years of stock declines. The market value of a given company fell 2.3% by adding one additional woman.

In some ways, I guess women have a PR problem. Like it or not, an OECD report from 2016 cited “cultural barriers” as the first on its list of reasons why there aren’t more women in high positions, saying that leadership is often associated as a “man’s domain” with qualities such as strength, decisiveness, and ambition being more readily ascribed to men.

I agree with Roger Ferguson, Chief Executive of TIAA, a large institutional investor, who said “The No. 1 issue facing our boards is performance. We know diverse boards with different voices lead to better outcomes. It’s not just the morally right thing to do…it’s the financially smart thing to do.”

Not only adding more women to boards but other culturally diverse voices makes our businesses—your business—stronger.

Retain your talent – family-friendly workplaces

The OECD’s second reason on its list was lack of work-life balance and flexible working arrangements, and lack of support and development networks.

In the tech industry, finding great talent is hard and getting harder. To me, retaining talented employees of any gender is a priority.

I was lucky, and to a degree I made my own luck. After having my third child, I met a mother at school who had an amazing career but who was working part-time. I asked her how she got this job because most of the part-time jobs I saw advertised were low paying administrative roles. She said that she saw her dream job online, applied, and didn’t tell them she wanted part-time until she got through the interview process. They needed her skills. She needed part-time. It worked well. So, I copied her and landed a great position which led to another role and a couple of years later I held a senior management role while working only three days a week.

While I’m full-time now, I look back to that time as a win-win for the company and me. I was still outputting almost the same amount of work I did when full-time (there’s no time for messing around when you’re a manager working three days a week!) while receiving only three days’ pay, and I got to be at home with my kids more days than I was in the office for those formative years.


Representation is so important. It’s easier to see yourself in a position if others around you are in that position. Seeking mentorship, and being a mentor, are incredibly rewarding ways to help representation.

Last year I had the privilege of working with two women through Chicago Innovation’s Women’s Mentoring Co-op. Mentoring is truly a win-win, the mentor often learning as much from the mentee throughout the process.

The next generation

The OECD’s list of why there aren’t more women in leadership positions also indicated that some of the reasons are partly self-imposed, listing lack of confidence, gender stereotypes, and gendered social roles.

While some of these reasons are very hard to shift in a short period of time, we can look at the way we parent—and more importantly, communicate with and about—our girls. For example, there are no “bossy” boys, right? Celebrating and encouraging our confident girls will help them build rewarding lives and careers, whichever pathways they choose to go down.

Our schools, increasingly, are taking the lead on increasing the numbers of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), areas traditionally dominated by men.

Banyule Nillumbik Tech School, a new school in Victoria, Australia, is celebrating engineer Teodora Raducan as part of a new STEMpowered exhibition showcasing the extraordinary achievements of Victorian women in STEM fields. As Teodora says: “I believe it is very important for girls to get involved​​ in STEM because they bring a different perspective to the table. I think that diversity is the key to innovation and that has to be reflected in everything from gender to cultural background.”

The same could be said of law.

These different perspectives can only make our future businesses stronger.

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