Could Universal Design Help Close the Gender Gap?

Universal designWomen’s History Month should be a time of celebration, so I’m not going to be a Debbie Downer. However, it’s tempting if you look at statistics on women in the workplace. Over the last four years, the number of women at every level in corporate America has barely moved. This stagnation occurs as more and more companies say they’re committed to gender diversity.

The legal profession is no better. Over the last 12 years, the number of women equity partners has increased from 15 percent to just 20 percent.

Okay I’m being a Debbie Downer, so I’m going to shift focus to a potential solution: a concept known as universal design.

Universal Design Defined

Universal design is the design and composition of an environment that can be accessed, understood and used by all people regardless of age, size, ability or disability.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental researchers at North Carolina State University. The purpose of the principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. The principles include:

  • Equitable use
  • Flexibility in use
  • Simple and intuitive use
  • Perceptible information
  • Tolerance for error
  • Low physical effort
  • Size and space for approach and use

Universal design isn’t meant to benefit only a certain segment of the population. Rather, it’s a fundamental condition of good design. Universal design creates an environment helpful to all people.

While the concept of universal design is probably best known in the fields of education and website development, why couldn’t we apply it to the legal profession?

A Woman’s Reality in the Workplace

For starters, let’s address some of those dismal stats and workplace realities I mentioned.

Think about the current realities for women in the legal profession. While roughly 50 percent of law students nationwide are women and about the same number are recruited into associate positions at law firms, statistics show that these women aren’t reflected in the number of non-equity or equity partners. The numbers are even worse for women of color.

When women do make partner, compensation numbers are problematic. Last year, male partners earned $959,000 on average compared to $627,000 on average for female partners. This is a 53 percent difference. These numbers violate the first principle of universal design: equitable use.

Universal Design to the Rescue

When applying universal design, it’s important to look at why things aren’t working. A 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company study provides a few reasons. In comparison to men, women (especially women of color) receive less support from managers, less access to senior leadership and are more likely to need flexible schedules to better balance work and family.

So, how can law firms create a more well-designed environment that’s accessible to everyone? First, if women are receiving less support from managers, organizations need to ensure that managers understand how and why their actions impact women.

Less than half of managers receive unconscious bias training, even though employees who understand how bias impacts their decisions make fairer and more objective choices. This is an easy first step that a firm’s human resources department or training and development team could implement.

Next, if women have less access to senior leadership, law firms must encourage these opportunities. One way to do this is through mentorship. Mentors can introduce mentees to other leaders in the legal profession as well as provide guidance on firm culture and promotion.

If you or your office is interested in mentoring, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism offers a year-long program. After completion, 100 percent of mentors and mentees said they’d recommend the program to other lawyers.

Finally, if women taking time off for maternity leave and struggling with re-entry into the workplace is an issue, a universal design solution would allow flextime so employees can successfully balance their professional and personal lives. Men would likely benefit from this flexibility too.

Universal design might also provide for quality childcare options near the office. An employee who isn’t constantly concerned about their child’s well-being is better able to focus on work (i.e., increased productivity).

Next Steps

These are just a few ideas on how universal design can contribute to closing aspects of the gender gap that permeate the legal profession. The cost of unconscious bias training, a mentorship program and flextime is minimal compared to the business benefits of gender diversity: new ideas, improved results and happier employees.

In honor of Women’s History Month, think about practical ways to apply the concepts of universal design to your workplace. Please share your ideas below.

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