The Opportunity Gap: The Dirty Secret About the Small Inequities Holding Women Back

Missing from much of the debate on achieving greater diversity at the top of American business is any discussion of the subtle differences in opportunities afforded to men and to women. These differences are cumulative and compound over the course of a career. This "opportunity gap" stubbornly persists, although the opportunities are clearly far greater today than they were 39 years ago when I began my career. I joined the firm then known as Fulbright & Jaworski because it was the only major firm in Texas that at the time that would allow me, a woman, to try cases. The obstacles confronting me would have been substantially similar had I started my practice in New York or any other city in America. Back then, women still faced fundamental questions about whether we were as capable and committed as the men whose law firms we were trying to join. During my early years practicing, some clients actually called partners to complain that they did not want a "girl" handling their cases. Thankfully, questions about the competence and commitment of women in the law, in business and in many other professions are largely behind us, but the percentage of women who rise to the top as leaders, CEOs, Managing Directors or partners remains stubbornly low.

The reasons women have not made more progress, despite decades of diversity programs, are varied and complex. Some do involve the women themselves -- their responsibilities to their families, whether anyone is sharing the work at home, whether they have support systems that free them up to be high performers at work. Yet far too often, women are not advancing because they simply are not given the same opportunities and equal exposure to clients, customers and other people, both outside and inside an organization, who will teach them something they need to know or give them something they need -- a piece of advice, a piece of business, or an introduction. In this day and age, the failure to include a women is often unintentional. But whether intentional or not, the net effect is the same: small, subtle exclusions pile up in ways that limit women's ability to advance. What damage is done to a woman's career by neglecting to include her on a client team? What is the cumulative effect of forgetting to invite her to a meeting or lunch with an important client or customer, or failing to ask her to join a new business call? How does one quantify the harm done by an invitation not extended or an introduction not made?

I have experienced how dispiriting it is to have to raise one's hand continually to ask, "Hey, what about me?" These micro-inequities accumulate over time, and the effect is compounded annually, much like interest. At key points in a career, both men and women do a cost-benefit analysis: is this job worth it? Little wonder that women who experience the opportunity gap often conclude that they are not getting out of a job what they are putting into it. They walk out the door, taking their talents with them.

Gender imbalance is detrimental not only to women -- but also to companies. The business case for gender equity has never been stronger, with numerous studies demonstrating that diverse teams result in better decision-making and stronger financial results. Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell's Soup Co. and one of only 25 women serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, makes the point that diversity will be a competitive advantage as it "will help us forge stronger connections with the consumers we serve today and with the new generations of consumers we will serve tomorrow." My colleague on the Catalyst Board, Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, earlier this year became the first woman ever to hold the top job at a Big Four firm. She has developed a list of five things Fortune 500 businesses will need to do to remain in the Fortune 500 in the future. Not surprisingly, one of them is: "develop a lot more women leaders."

So the need for much greater diversity with women and other under-represented communities is clear. The question is: how do we make inclusion happen across the board? True equality will not occur until companies of all sizes and types embrace a new culture of inclusiveness, with leadership committed to effectuating that change.

At Norton Rose Fulbright, we are working to make inclusion second nature, so that if women are missing from a project, it will be and even today often is a man who notices and speaks up. Unconscious-bias training, flexible work schedules, ensuring that our pitch teams are diverse and evaluating our partners on how they have worked with women and other under-represented groups to develop and expand client relationships are just a few ways in which we raise awareness about the critical importance of inclusion.

Although these initiatives are important, history has shown that diversity programs alone will not advance women in a meaningful way.

Most effective business leaders know that what gets measured gets done. Our firm established a global diversity commitment by setting a target that women comprise 30 percent of our equity partnership and 30 percent of our senior leadership positions by the year 2020. This is a meaningful commitment, given The America Lawyer's prediction that at the current rate of progress, law firms will not have 30 percent women equity partners until 2081. With 23 percent women equity partners, our firm currently stands 6 percent ahead of the industry average of 17 percent. Our culture of inclusion is demonstrated by our partners, who have not only elected a female managing partner, but also a leadership group that is 36 percent female.

Many companies pay lip service to diversity by achieving it at lower levels, while a majority of those at the top remains predominantly male. The fact is that women now earn more than 50 percent of higher education degrees in the US, but they comprise only 17 percent of the partners in law firms, 18 percent in accounting firms and fewer than one percent of professional services firm CEOs. The input is here. The output is not. Surely the majority of these women did not invest their time and money in college and graduate school with the aspiration of being stuck in mid-level management positions or spending their careers as non-partners. High-level jobs are not for everyone. But companies do owe women a level playing field on which they can achieve them. And the women who want them must be outspoken and ambitious enough to go after them.

Early in our marriage, my husband and I bought a house with a yard that had azaleas but did not have a sprinkler system. Neither of us had time to water the plants. The few azaleas that survived had developed deep and resourceful root systems. Although we had a few progressive male mentors, by and large the women of my generation had to develop our own root systems by figuring out how to develop business and clients for ourselves.

Providing women with a more straightforward path to the C-suite is a problem we can solve if we work to develop the root system so that women and members of other under-represented groups do not have to develop their careers alone. Businesses must assume responsibility, and clients and customers can make a meaningful difference. Companies that hire law, consulting, accounting and other professional service firms can drive inclusiveness by requiring that experienced female and diverse professionals lead their matters. Businesses can and must create cultures of inclusion that close the opportunity gap. And women must insist that their employers provide them with the same inclusion in opportunities that men have historically been afforded, or take their talents to companies that do.