As a continuation to CDS’s article series surrounding gender issues in the legal field, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Irina Ridley, Chief Counsel at Myriad Women’s Health. As a business-savvy attorney, Irina previously spent time in Management Consulting at Deloitte and PwC working with teams of consultants to address risk and regulatory considerations for Life Sciences companies of all shapes and sizes – from startups to Fortune 100 companies. She later founded the Legal, Compliance, and Privacy functions of Omada Health, a digital therapeutics company that grew from 28 to 300 people during her tenure. Her next endeavor was at Counsyl, where she was brought on to help the company through its next phase of growth. In addition to helping to overhaul the Legal department, Irina took the company through a financing round, a dual path of IPO prep and M&A considerations, and ultimately oversaw the acquisition of Counsyl by Myriad Genetics, Inc., the pioneer of precision medicine. Irina also sits on the Boards of several organizations. She and I discussed a variety of topics related to women in the legal field and unfair gender practices.
After college, Irina went directly on to a joint JD and MBA program and started her career with no pause in between. Bold, smart and ambitious, Irina has, throughout her career, been aware of and focused on navigating the different social and professional expectations imposed on women and men. “Because I’ve always been relatively young for the roles I’ve taken on, age has been a huge sticking point – ‘you’re just too green and haven’t had enough experience’,” said Irina as she reflected on her past experiences. “Funny enough, that same drive and ambition was welcomed and appreciated from, in my humble opinion, less qualified males, who had lots to say but perhaps less substance to back it up.”
It has been frustrating for Irina when people in her professional circle have undermined her position or advice because they presume her age disqualifies her expertise. Men who advance their careers at the same cadence are often applauded whereas younger women are more likely to be devalued and overlooked – thus, tying age to gender exacerbates prejudice. According to the 2019 American Bar Association report titled Walking out the Door, “Entering associate classes in BigLaw consist of 45% to 50% women, yet women accounted for only 20% of equity partners in 2018.” There are more obstacles for women to advance their careers, especially when age is a factor.
There is a clear gender gap in the legal industry. Female partners face a 53 percent pay gap compared to their male counterparts according to the 2018 Partner Compensation Survey. For Irina, everyone should be held responsible for this imbalance. The industry should be evaluated as a whole. “Diversifying a company or the more recent trend of adding the token woman to a board does not go far enough. It is not about diversity, but about inclusion,” said Irina. “It is the conversations that go on outside of executive committee meetings or board rooms that are equally if not more valuable. Companies should be diverse, yes, but more importantly, to understand the needs internally and to evidence a position of strength externally, companies should be focused on including the right people in the conversation – regardless of age, gender, or other such considerations. Rather than having an equal ratio of male to female employees, companies need to focus their efforts on hiring for talent,” Irina suggested. “Being prescriptive and putting an assigned number of women in roles often has unintended consequences, and what was designed to be a step toward inclusion leads to further divide.”
The question still stands: how do companies hire for talent if there are too few or no women in applicant candidacy pools? Irina believes companies need to assess what they are doing to promote a more inclusive company culture. More importantly, she told me, “they should ask the question: why is this not an attractive company for women?”
We no longer live in an era where a single income is enough to financially provide for a family. Two parent households generally require that both parents are in the workforce. As evidenced by recent world events, flexible schedules and the ability to work from home are necessary to accommodate the modern family. If employers are looking for an equal and inclusive environment, then they need to be cognizant and respectful of a solution that works for everyone. A long commute coupled with a demanding workday leaves little time for parents to be attentive to their children. Difficult situations like this force women to choose between their home life and advancing their career. In response to this, Irina said, “I don’t care where my employees are or what hours they keep. I care that the job is done when they said it would be and at the level that I expect.”
“Perhaps the issue is even bigger,” Irina says, as she contemplated how men might face their own gender biases in the workplace. “Paternity leave, for instance, is generally frowned upon in the United States.” Employers assume men should maintain the same level of productivity after the birth of a newborn, a time when fathers should bond with their child. The gender divide will continue to grow if women are the only ones to receive comprehensive parental leave. By virtue of our gender, women are seen as the caretakers and men as the breadwinners. Family leave should be equally encouraged for both men and women.
Normalizing gender roles and re-writing organizational practices are actionable steps companies can take to promote an inclusive workplace regardless of an employee’s age, gender, title, marital, or paternity status. To be effective, Irina said, law firms and corporations alike need to alter both their written and cultural policies to “focus on including the right voices and bringing the right people to the table to drive meaningful decision-making rather than on checking the diversity box.”