Barbara de Muro, expert in corporate law, has shattered the glass ceiling into a thousand pieces after spending the last 20 years building herself a career in some of the Italy’s biggest law partnerships. Today she is an equity partner at the firm LCA. Mother-of-two de Muro also heads up ASLA Women, a working group that aims to improve the prospects of women in the legal profession. They work under the Associazione degli Studi Legali Associati (the Italian Association of Law Partnerships, or ASLA). “When I began in the mid 90s, just 20% of those working as lawyers were women,” she explains. Since then, things have changed a great deal, yet women are still struggling to reach the upper echelons in this profession.
To what extent do equal opportunities exist in the field of law?
In reality, law partnerships represent a very specific sector. These organised business structures are not necessarily large ones: there are international firms as well as medium or small-medium ones. They are not necessarily in Milan or Rome either: there are many firms across all of Italy’s regions and provinces. Our project is a very particular one. For years, we have been closely monitoring the status of women and more generally of diversity and 50% of interns and trainees today are women.
The real issue is that there are no women in the top ranks of firms. Just 20% of equity partners (those who get a cut when profits are shared out) are women. If we look, instead, at other partners (those who don’t bear any risk and receive a fixed salary), the percentage goes up a little, but at 24% it is still low. The percentage falls even further for managing partners (those who run the firms) just 13% of whom are women. We have a long way to go.
According to the Cassa Forense women earn less than half of what men earn in the profession
Does this divide also translate into a pay gap?
ASLA doesn’t have access to data on income, because that’s not a question we ask our partners. But nationally, according to the Cassa Forense (the Italian state social protection body for law professionals), women earn less than half of what men earn in the profession. This divide can be seen right across the country, in all age groups, but it is larger among older age groups. That gap also persists for women with no children. The divide exists regardless and time does not bridge the gap.
What are the causes behind such disparity?
There are many causes. One is so-called “horizontal divisions”. In other words, women tend towards types of law that suit our nature better and require empathy and taking care of others. These are types of law that involve individual human beings and that are less profitable, such as family law. There are fewer women in areas of law relating to business, such as corporate law, finance law, any branch relating to market capital. This discussion doesn’t apply to law partnerships, because they handle branches of law that are more “for men”. Yet there are differences here too.
We want to accelerate change and ensure that we can enjoy the progress made for ourselves, rather than making the changes from which only future generations will benefit
How can we reduce the divide?
At ASLA Women, we have tried to effect change from all angles, involving male and female lawyers alike. We have planned lots of awareness-raising activities to help male and female professionals gain more knowledge of the gender issue, setting up projects that teach leadership and also targeting top-level individuals. It is important to explain that the discourse can change. Women, for example, often expect merit to be recognised and do not ask for it. A number of our actions target law partnerships because the company structure makes the career path more transparent. Law partnerships are actually a relatively new concept, having arrived in Italy about 25 years ago. They are not governed by any specific regulations. Instead, each has its own Articles of Association and its own way of running things, but it’s often only the partners who know about this. That is why it is important to make common knowledge: behaviour that will be rewarded, the way roles are shared out, the criteria used to award bonuses and the path for an employee to become partner. This is a job where having the chance to see and experience lots of different things is the key to progression. The danger lies in becoming the employee always entrusted with routine tasks because he or she is good at one specific thing. Many women don't ask to be given other types of work. But climbing the ranks requires experience in a variety of roles and the courage to ask for work in different areas. It is also important to know how to read and understand the criteria upon which a firm bases its conduct. Becoming a partner is very difficult, so knowing how to do it is important.
When I began in the mid 90s, 20% of those working as lawyers were women Now, instead, we are here and we need to show and demonstrate that we have families and that being able to manage everything is really very difficult
In a country like Italy, where we have only recently begun speaking about diversity and where the path to gender equality is a long one, how can we teach and promote equal opportunities?
It is a culture problem, with equal division of family roles between men and women at its centre. It will still take some time, but the later generations are already showing differences. Young fathers want to be more involved.
At ASLA we have had guidelines in place for many years governing the relationship between work and study, non-binding suggestions that law partnerships are free to adopt. As self-employed professionals, for example, we have no rights to maternity leave. We would receive an allowance from the Cassa but our jobs are not guaranteed. That’s why we have insisted on the introduction of a recognised period of leave in which a fee, supporting benefit or, for the top experts, the full salary is paid. Some firms immediately adopted paternity leave, too, with a marvellously successful outcome.
We want to accelerate change and ensure that we can enjoy the progress made for ourselves, rather than making the changes from which only future generations will benefit.
Role models are also extremely important. When I began in the mid 90s, 20% of those working as lawyers were women. There were few women to look up to. Now, instead, we are here and we need to show and demonstrate that we have families and that being able to manage everything is really very difficult. These are very difficult years [for women], but working in an organisation, and getting assistance, allows us to use tools (such as delegation), which makes it possible to reconcile [work and life]. What is needed is the support of an intelligent firm that, after years invested in training, understands how to help a talented member of staff grow and to continue that support during maternity.