Over the last year, the #MeToo movement has made sexual harassment in the workplace a front and center issue. The movement has also brought a new urgency to closing the gender gap. When more women are in executive positions, including equity partnerships at law firms, women have a greater collective voice – and this voice goes hand-in-hand with making the workplace feel safer and more inclusive for everyone.

Workplace Harassment: Where Do We Stand in 2019?

Harassment claims filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 12% in the year ending September 30, 2018 from the 12 months before, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an initiative launched by women in the entertainment industry in 2018, says it has received more than 3,500 requests for assistance with claims, most of them from low- income workers. For all the success #MeToo has had in empowering women to feel more comfortable speaking out about workplace harassment, challenges remain.

Only a quarter of women say incidents of harassment are addressed rapidly at their companies, compared with almost 40% of men, according to the 2018 “Women in the Workplace” report from Lean In and McKinsey. Nearly a third of women harbor doubts that reporting harassment to their employers would be helpful, or worry they would be penalized for speaking up—twice the share of men. Part of the problem is women continue to be vastly underrepresented at every level. In the corporate world, just one in five senior leaders is a woman, and only one in 25 is a woman of color. To truly make the workplace feel safer and more inclusive, more women must be represented in executive ranks.

Women in Law: Representation Challenges

While 40% of first year associates in law firms are women, women account for just 19% of equity partners and 30% of non-equity partners. These figures remain virtually unchanged from five years ago, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Promotion & Retention surveys. Are women simply prioritizing other aspects of their lives, like having children, over career advancement? Important research from the Boston Consulting Group debunks this so called “ambition gap.” When companies create a positive culture and attitude to support gender diversity, all women – mothers included – are eager to advance. According to the report, “Ambition is not a fixed attribute but it is nurtured—or damaged—by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time.”

The #MeToo movement is shining the spotlight on how negative daily interactions, like workplace harassment, create a toxic work environment. When harassment is excused, ignored or otherwise tolerated, the workplace becomes less safe – and women are less likely to have the positive interactions, conversations and opportunities that foster their ambition and advancement. Every company has a policy regarding workplace harassment, but as #MeToo shows, a policy alone is not sufficient. Work environment matters, and a positive work environment starts with equitable representation.

Gender Parity in the Legal Field: 3 Opportunities for Change

Legal firms face a chicken and egg problem: without gender parity, women are less likely to advance. Yet gender parity cannot be achieved unless women do advance. So what steps can firms take to translate stated gender diversity commitments into actionable change?

Firms can start by establishing progress milestones to assess efforts. When do women leave the firm and why? Next, firms can evaluate whether policies meant to support inclusion and career trajectories, such as flextime, are actually utilized. For example, do women feel comfortable taking advantage of flextime, or is there an unconscious bias against attorneys who utilize these offerings? Third, firms must recognize that parity is achieved not only through promotion but also through lateral hiring. Leveraging external resources, like an executive recruiter, can help close the gap.

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace and the underrepresentation of women isn’t a coincidence. To address the root problem, we must change the culture.