Interview with Peter – Advice for Women

posted March 4th, 2014 by Janet Graham - One Comment

Today’s post is the second of three excerpts from my interview with “Peter” a very successful and senior lawyer at one of Canada’s major law firms.  I was thrilled he agreed to be interviewed. I hope you enjoy reading what he has to say and as usual your comments are most welcome!!


I asked Peter if he was advising a young woman who wanted to have a child or children, whether he would say go right ahead, sooner rather later.  I was curious to know whether he felt there was a place today at the professional firms or elsewhere in the corporate world for a woman who takes longer to reach senior executive levels eg become a partner because she has chosen to have a family during her early work years. Do professional firms take this into account as a possibility? If it took someone longer to reach the required level of expertise and seniority would the firm appreciate it or would the extended time frame cause difficulties for the woman.  In essence, could you be on a track that was a little longer?


Peter says: “The answer to that question, first of all, from my own experience at our firm and then perhaps I can generalize how this might apply elsewhere is we don’t look at that at all.  As far as we’re concerned, we have a certain approach to hiring.  Our approach is to hire the best and the brightest and if that person at the entry level, and this will apply along the way, is younger or older or from a different background, we actually see the diversity as enriching the law firm and the environment.  Along the way, we’re evaluating people in terms of what kind of partners they will make and when they’ll be ready to be partners. When there’s a confidence level that a person will make a good partner, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve taken six years to do that or they’ve taken longer in the absolute number of years. As I said before, in some senses, maternity leaves can actually enrich a person, they can be an advantage.


“My own sense is that young women come at this from a different perspective depending on their own families, their own role models, their backgrounds, their own level of confidence and, of course, the environment, the work environment they’re in.  You’re asking me about the environment side.  My own sense is that one’s got to look at this from both sides.  The environment has to be conducive and accepting and has to evaluate objectively as opposed to prejudicially.  In other words, prejudicially would be saying this person has been here for X number of years and of that they’ve had three kids so they’ve been away for Y period and they can’t be as competent or as qualified as somebody who hasn’t done that.  Let’s just take two women – one who has been through that and one who hasn’t.  The way I would look at this would be to look at the end product and say is this person ready.  You see some people that have been practicing law for four or five years and you can see they are going to be superstars and it doesn’t really matter if they’ve practiced four or five years continuously or four or five years over a longer period of time.  On the other hand, you see people who’ve been in the legal profession for much longer than that and you know that they’re probably suited to a different type of environment and maybe not the intense environment and the demands of a law firm and it’s got nothing to do with kids and having taken maternity leave.  Obviously, on an ongoing basis, that’s a choice as far as balance is concerned that the individual has to make, men and women, home and work etc,  but you evaluate the person based on all of their qualities, intellectual, social and emotional, maturity level etc.


“That’s how we evaluate people and certainly that’s how I look at it.  Are there law firms that come at this perhaps from a more prejudicial standpoint, who have made assumptions about people who’ve had maternity leaves.  My guess is there probably are.  Are there some really exceptional young women who overcome that despite that prejudice?  Yes, absolutely.  Do others believe that the reason they were passed over for partner or they didn’t make it was because of the maternities but, in fact, that’s unfair to their law firm?  Absolutely!  In other words, people are always going to look for excuses.  It does happen but sometimes that’s used as an excuse and certainly it’s not something that we strive towards.  We strive towards an objective process where we are looking to have the best and the brightest and everything else is really noise in the general scheme of things because that’s not going to define taking off this period of time here and that period of time there which can actually enrich and it’s not going to define whether that person’s going to be the best or the brightest.”


I asked Peter what he felt accounted for the documented lack of progress of women in the securities firms and the professional firms despite the fact that for a considerable period of time there have been significant numbers of women graduating from business and law school and in the other professions.


He says: “It’s all the things we’ve been discussing. It’s history and resistance to change.  It’s certain environments and occupations that are more open to change than others.  Again, we come to what we were talking about earlier, emotional intelligence, where there’s a high regard for emotional intelligence and people are needed who understand how to relate to other people and reach consensus decisions, it’s going to be natural for women to advance.  If you take an environment where, let’s call it the law of the jungle or the eat what you kill environment, how many stock trades did you do today, it might be different and it might take more time.  Now, again, I believe that the 20 somethings will have a different experience.  I could be proved wrong here but hopefully, if we’re having this discussion again in 30 years, we’ll look back and say those industries changed.  Will they ever change completely, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I believe there will be significant change.  I’m basing that on how much change there’s been in some of the professions and occupations in the last 30, 40 or 50 years.  In areas like law and medicine for example, the change has been enormous.  At the top level, admittedly in the practice of law, and my guess in medicine as well, there’s still plenty of room for change but I believe if you look at young professionals in their 20’s and 30’s and or going into their 40’s, we’ve seen big strides.”


I asked Peter whether his answer would be different if he was looking at women on boards, given the amount of dialogue about this issue today. He says: “That’s one of the best examples because the average age on boards would be folks in their 50’s and 60’s.  There’s still going to be a process to get there.  There’s no question that men dominate boards of companies, certainly in North America in most jurisdictions that I’m aware of, and that also applies to the senior leadership of the other professions and occupations, so executive committees of law firms and my guess is governing bodies of medical practices and associations and  management committees of accounting firms.  I don’t know the statistics but my perception is that the numbers of women at these levels are still relatively small, the proportion is relatively small, and that is certainly a very live issue and it’s part of human inertia.  Boards are essentially self-perpetuating; you don’t typically change a board for the sake of change.  The change occurs when there are some fundamental events, external events like an M & A  transaction or some kind of a corporate change like a new board being brought in due to activism by shareholders, or creating a board in an IPO and so on.  It’s really in those contexts that you have the greatest opportunity to design a board with all the different considerations in mind, including diversity, but the pool that you’re drawing on is typically the pool of people who have had experience before so it becomes self-perpetuating, so it takes time.  The more structured the forum, like a board or some other leadership organization or body, the less prone to change it is and that’s why I believe the change has been quite slow.”


I asked Peter whether he thought the “noise” around these issues had any impact. He says: “I do think it has an impact.  It’s something that business leaders and management, board chairs and others, recruiters and professional advisers who advise on these things, are reading and hearing about the issues and the more they read and hear about them, the more they’ll think about them and it’ll ultimately filter through to practice.  I see in the literature and it’s in the noise a significant amount of frustration that the pace of change is as slow as it has been and that’s why it’s so important for those women who are involved in those places, in those forums, to play a strong role, so they’re showing leadership and bringing that dimension to the attention of men on those boards or other bodies in a manner that’s going to be accepted.  In other words, it’s going to have to be through example, more than advocacy.


By their example, men see it’s okay to work with a woman, they feel comfortable, and then it becomes more natural. If a woman on a board wants to groom another woman to either come on to the board or play a larger role in the organization, it’s not perceived as something unnatural or simply based on principle.  It’s seen as something that’s a natural outflow and the board members will say, “Jane” is such a wonderful director and she has clearly got a high regard for “Mary” and she’s suggesting that we add “Mary” to the board, she must be right, and we’ve got to take her seriously.  That would be the best way of effecting that kind of change.”


What Strikes Me?

Hire the best and the brightest


Diversity enriches the workplace


Maternity leaves enrich women and this enrichment can be an advantage for them and their firms


Boards are essentially self-perpetuating; you typically don’t change a board for the sake of change


Board change occurs when a fundamental event occurs – external events like an M & A  transaction or some kind of a corporate change like a new board being brought in due to activism by shareholders or creating a board in an IPO and so on


The more structured the forum, like a board or another leadership organization or body, the less prone to change it is


The “noise” and advocacy around the issue of women on boards can have an impact


Women on boards have a role to play and an example to set for their male colleagues


What Strikes You?

Please comment


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One Response to “Interview with Peter – Advice for Women”

Comment from Mary Tod
Time March 6, 2014 at 8:58 am

What a great discussion you and ‘Peter’ are having, Janet. I’m delighted to read of his perspective on women. If this becomes the norm, women can indeed make strides in the legal business and elsewhere.

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