A&O’s communication training sparks gender row on soft skills

“Hard to tell from the details if this is really targeted at women. But if it is it is really condescending and patronising,” complained one reader. “Why is it that women have to be taught to communicate in a way compatible to men?” ­pondered another. “Far from assisting women, A&O’s actions further stigmatise women in the profession – highlighting their ‘special needs’; reinforcing a subliminal message of inadequacy,” said another poster.

It should be pointed out that these workshops would not be imposed on associates, but are being held to ­provide the option of access to training.

Also, the emphasis on women seeks to address the statistical fact of woefully poor female representation in both ­management and partnerships. Despite a gradual improvement in the gender balance among senior lawyers over the last two decades, the proportion of ­partners that are women is on average around 15 per cent – which is how it stands at A&O. Even in the most ‘female-friendly’ firms, such as Denton Wilde Sapte and Nabarro, a little more than a quarter of partners are female. Given that 60 per cent of entrants to the ­profession are women this points to a serious retention issue.

There are a whole host of contributing factors to this situation. The triple ­burden of paid work, childcare and unpaid domestic work that continues to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders is commonly cited as causing women to opt out. And despite the strides made by firms to address these factors through schemes such as flexible working, there are clearly limits to their ­effective implementation in certain transactional departments.

On the other hand, research by ­sociologists, psychologists, HR professionals and industry bodies suggest that a lack of soft skills – such as the ways in which an individual packages their own achievements and the ­’presence’ which they project – impacts on their ability to advance professionally. And something can be done about this, irrespective of gender, ­practice area or firm.

Clare McConnell, chair of the Association of Women ­Solicitors, says: “For all solicitors – men and women – being ­successful is all about communicating effectively internally and with clients. That’s the key to developing your ­business.

“Women solicitors are good team players. When a woman does a good job for a client, she often promotes her team rather than herself – if you want to be a successful business leader you need to do both. We need to encourage female solicitors to promote themselves as good leaders with solid teams behind them. In so doing you’re enhancing the quality and gravitas you’re providing to clients.”

One bone of contention among ­readers seems to be the point made by A&O’s associate director of HR Sasha Hardman that the workshops are intended to help associates “[have] a strong ­presence and be able to communicate powerfully”.

Readers may have made the assumption that this is about emulating ­traditionally male forms of communication – perhaps with the connotations of shoulder-pad-wearing, Thatcherite posturing. Not enough has emerged yet about what the specific content of these workshops will be.

However, to borrow a slogan from Stonewall – a lobby group that seeks to undo the structural limits to lesbian and gay career advancement – people perform better when they can be themselves. So communicating powerfully does not necessarily mean regurgitating masculine forms of address, but identifying one’s own strengths and weaknesses and projecting the former over the latter.

The corridors of power at A&O, like all magic circle firms and much of the City, are male-dominated. But through ­providing opportunities for focused training in soft skills, A&O is not only proving its credentials as a positive place to work, but is seeking to address this inequity. This is not stigmatising anyone, it is a sound move to develop the best available talent and ensure the firm’s own ­longevity.