Reed Smith speaks to Ranju Warrier about how the industry needs more women role models
International law firm Reed Smith’s partner Michelle Nelson, and legal director Rachel Larkin, speak to Construction Week’s digital editor Ranju Warrier about the rise of gender diversity in arbitral tribunals and the construction industry against the backdrop of the global pandemic
Women have made great strides in breaking the glass ceiling in the construction and infrastructure industry, but more must be done to achieve gender parity, beginning with answering the right questions when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the sector.
Increasing awareness around the significant benefits of diversity to business and fostering female talent especially when it comes to leadership roles in the sector are key to cultivating an inclusive and diverse workplace.
In an exclusive conversation with Construction Week, international law firm Reed Smith’s partner Michelle Nelson, and legal director Rachel Larkin speak about the rise of gender diversity in arbitral tribunals and how the construction and infrastructure industry, ( like all other industries) are seeing the impact of gender diversity on productivity and decisionmaking.
Larkin, who formerly worked as an in-house counsel for a construction firm discussed how a gender- diverse work environment helps to increase productivity for a company: “When you start to talk about productivity, the impact of gender diversity will be more pronounced in some areas of the business than it is in others.”
“Once you get up to C suite level, there can be different approaches between men and women. Often, the more diverse a board you have, the better the decisions that come out of it. That is as true in the construction industry as it is in any other industry,” Larkin, a specialist in international dispute resolution, focusing on disputes within the infrastructure sector in the MENA region, adds.
Meanwhile, Nelson, who is a specialist arbitration lawyer and leads Reed Smith’s construction, infrastructure, energy and
natural resources disputes practice in the Middle East, says: “I think the regional construction industry is probably no better and no worse than its global colleagues across the world.
“A more diverse representation across the sector can only be positive. Having been based in the Middle East for more than 16 years practicing as a lawyer in the construction, infrastructure, and oil and gas sectors, I have never found that gender has been an issue in terms of dealing with our clients, and dealing with people on the other side from disputes.
“If there are different sorts of personalities, backgrounds, and experiences across the board, particularly in the current climate where everyone is facing the challenges from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, diversity of gender can only be positive.”
Women in leadership
Explaining how the construction industry has improved when it comes to the inclusion of women in leadership roles, Larkin states: “The construction industry does a comparatively better job than many other industries of retaining the small proportion of women that have been coming into its businesses, and promoting them into senior roles.
“The main challenge faced by the construction industry in increasing gender diversity is that there is a lack of women taking science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects at the graduate level.”
Nelson seconds Larkin, while adding that “traditionally these sectors have been male dominated”.
She adds that for women who wish to combine their careers in the industry with family, the challenge has been both the absence of women role models in the sector and the lack of flexibility when working.
Reed Smith, according to Nelson, has been making sure that there are more women at board level through all aspects of senior management.
From retaining talent to promoting women through the ranks and taking up a flexible approach, Reed Smith has been supportive of creating the right working environment.
Nelson states that the pandemic has given a certain amount of recognition to people’s ability to work remotely. This has also been the case with the construction industry, where the majority of the work is being accomplished on the site.
“The positives that have come out of this situation demonstrates that people can work differently. This could enable the construction industry as well to encourage women to remain in more senior roles within the business,” notes Nelson.
Despite the challenges caused by COVID-19, the pandemic has given rise to opportunities, where people can now work remotely, and this has been positive for women in the industry. “A lot of the issues we had been facing are now falling away,” exclaims Larkin.
Rise of women in arbitrations
According to a 2020 report, ‘Cross-Institutional Task Force on Gender Diversity in Arbitral Appointments and Proceedings’, by the International Council for Commercial Arbitration ( ICCA), gender diversity in arbitral tribunals has been increasing, with the number of female arbitrators appointed to tribunals has doubled in the past four years. Nelson herself has been appointed as arbitrator by two of the major arbitral institutions.
The increase has been largely based on the efforts of institutions to bring more female lawyers and arbitrators on board.
However, the path to the rise of women in law firms as well as senior leadership roles has not been easy.
One of the main obstacles in the past has been the lack of flexible working arrangements, according to Larkin, which has led to “many women dropping out of the profession before reaching very senior positions within their career”. This raises the question, how can businesses address this?
Response to gender diversity
Companies that address gender diversity issues as business issues, not just as human resources issues, are the ones that will benefit in a long run.
Larkin explains: “Quite often, issues like gender diversity, or diversity more broadly, can end up at the bottom of a company’s very long to- do list.
“However, companies that succeed in addressing these issues, are the ones who always keep them as one of their top priorities.”
In 2018, Reed Smith joined the #SeeHer campaign, becoming the first law firm to be a member of the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) Movement to developing, retaining, and advancing talented women.
“It is encouraging to see that the campaign has been embraced across the region where questions to gender diversity have been answered.
More women are now part of government and local organisations, including taking up senior roles,” concludes Nelson.