Senior ranks of Dutch lawyers near gender parity, study finds

ATTORNEY

The Netherlands has emerged as the most favourable jurisdiction for women lawyers out of five surveyed by the International Bar Association (IBA) as part of an ongoing study, although Dutch law firms and corporate legal departments remain male-dominated at senior levels.

According to the IBA’s latest report on gender disparity in the legal profession, women comprise 57% of all lawyers in the Netherlands, a proportion that falls to 46% of lawyers in senior positions.

While the percentage of lawyers in senior roles is just short of the 50% representation sought by the IBA’s campaigners, it does put the Netherlands ahead of the four previous jurisdictions to come under the microscope. Some 43% of senior lawyers in Nigeria are women, in Uganda that proportion slips to 40% while it stands at 32% in England and Wales and 31% in Spain.

Despite the Netherlands’ relatively strong performance, however, Dutch law firms are dragging down the averages – just under half (49%) of their ranks are women, a proportion that falls to 28% among their senior ranks.

Carola van den Bruinhorst, chair of the IBA’s Legal Practice Division, said: “As a partner at Loyens & Loeff, the promotion of gender equality has been nothing less than a personal mission.” 

She pointed to the “significant drops in gender parity levels in senior positions” and the need for the “support of those in the most senior positions in law firms, usually males, to take ownership of and responsibility for diversity initiatives”.

The survey found that 63% of public sector lawyers are women, 45% of whom hold senior positions, putting this segment well ahead of the segment with the highest disparity, corporate in-house legal: while 58% of lawyers in this arena are women, this proportion falls to 29% of those in senior positions. 

There was better news for the judiciary, which recorded the smallest gap between representation at all levels and at the senior end. Women comprise the majority of the judiciary (61%) and occupy 54% of senior roles – in England and Wales, women make up just 26% of the judiciary.

Marlies Vegter of Bureau Clara Wichmann, who represents the Netherlands in the European Network of Legal Experts in Gender Equality, said: “Further measures are needed in the area of equal pay, fair remuneration of lawyers working in the social domain and increase of women in leadership positions. I hope this report will contribute towards improvements in this respect in the legal profession, both in the Netherlands and other countries around the world.”

The study, which is supported by the Lexis-Nexis Rule of Law Foundation, is part of the IBA’s 50:50 project: a series of longitudinal studies into gender disparity in law. The survey was drawn from responses by the top 25 firms by size and via open participation through the national Dutch Bar Association and Dutch in-house legal and corporate networks.

The survey found that coaching and mentoring programmes and leadership training for women were the joint most popular initiatives for developing senior leadership ambitions, with 77% of the respondents in both cases reporting these initiatives were in place. 

Leadership training had been in place in the Dutch professions for an average of 9.6 years, whereas coaching and mentoring had been up and running for an average of 8.2 years. Flexible working arrangements were the third most popular initiative, used by 69% of respondents and rated ‘very effective’ by 56%.

Saskia Blokland, managing partner of Norton Rose Fulbright’s Amsterdam office, highlighted the benefits of career strategy programmes, mentoring and sponsorship, and acknowledged that the firm’s training “was a positive factor in my journey from associate to partner”.

“The support we give to our people throughout their careers is essential,” she said. “For me, the trust and encouragement of the (male) partner who sponsored me in my journey to partnership was invaluable.” 

Noting that NRF had implemented initiatives that supported flexible and inclusive ways of working, she added: “Fostering these new ways of working is essential for us to achieve more diverse teams and a more diverse partner group.”

The report follows the publication of the IBA’s Diversity and Inclusion toolkit last week, which has been widely welcomed. Gender issues were extensively discussed at the IBA’s annual conference in Paris, led by Almudena Arpón de Mendívil, the first female IBA president in 20 years. 

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