Elevating Women in Arbitration

“ArbitralWomen is grateful for the tremendous support provided by V&E and Louise Woods,” said ArbitralWomen president Dana MacGrath. The events V&E organized, she said, “have increased the organization’s visibility and messaging about the underrepresentation of women in the international arbitration field.”

When Louise Woods works with a client to select potential arbitrators to resolve a dispute, she always includes at least one woman on the short list.

“I don’t just choose any woman. I make sure that I choose a woman whom I know will do as good, if not better, a job as any of the men on the list,” said Woods, an International Dispute Resolution partner based in V&E’s London office. “It’s just that the names of men still come more readily because they’re generally more well-known.”

The field of international dispute resolution, like much of the legal profession, has a disappointingly lopsided gender ratio at senior levels. In 2017, women accounted for less than 17 percent of all arbitrators nominated or appointed in International Chamber of Commerce cases. Not surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for a female IDR attorney or arbitrator to be the lone woman in the room during arbitration proceedings. But attorneys like Woods are working to change that.

In addition to encouraging her clients to consider female arbitrators, Woods seeks to empower women through ArbitralWomen (AW), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting women in international dispute resolution through networking, professional development, mentoring and more. Woods joined the group in 2009 and was elected to its board of directors in 2016. Last year, she was selected to serve on AW’s executive committee as board secretary and is in charge of organizing monthly meetings, among other duties.

“I feel personally quite passionate about the cause,” Woods explained. “I work with a lot of very talented female arbitration practitioners. The aim is to get more and more of them to the very top of their career ladder, not just because they want it but also because studies have consistently shown that diverse groups generally produce better results. We want diversity of thinking in management, on boards, in legal teams and on tribunals, because that will produce a better result for the client.”

Through Woods’ leadership, V&E has partnered with AW in its mission to promote gender diversity. V&E has hosted or sponsored several AW networking events in London as well as a two-day board of directors retreat in New York.

“ArbitralWomen is grateful for the tremendous support provided by V&E and Louise Woods,” said ArbitralWomen president Dana MacGrath. The events V&E organized, she said, “have increased the organization’s visibility and messaging about the underrepresentation of women in the international arbitration field.”

MacGrath also praised Woods for her role in the organization. “Louise is central to our governance process and handles every task efficiently and professionally,” MacGrath said “But most of all, she inspires confidence and is a pleasure to work with – which undoubtedly draws V&E clients to Louise as well.”

Woods has inspired several V&E arbitration associates to join AW, including senior IDR associate, Georgina Barlow. Barlow recently represented AW in a panel discussion on confidentiality and transparency in arbitration during London International Disputes Week.

“I’ve felt welcomed at every event I’ve been to,” Barlow said. “It’s a really good network to be a part of.”

Obstacles to Parity

Woods explained that for women in arbitration, networking and supporting each other is particularly important in a field where a preference for men, however unconscious, is still prevalent.

“Historically, the eminent arbitrators have been white men, and I think there is a degree of people tending to appoint in their own image,” Woods said. “Until we get more women at the top of corporates and law firms, I think that that sort of blockage will still be there.”

“Arbitration is a confidential dispute resolution mechanism, so there’s a limit to what can be researched about a particular arbitrator’s performance,” Woods added. “Recommendations generally come by word-of-mouth. We will hear through contacts in the industry. ‘Oh, you know, so-and-so was great. She chaired our tribunal. She was really effective.’ In many ways, the best thing that women can do, once they get that first appointment, is make sure that they work really hard and do an amazing job, because then they will get reappointed.”

Women with children may find another aspect of international arbitration particularly daunting: frequent travel.

“Our hearings are international. They’re all over the place, so you can be required to be away from home, doing intense work for a couple of weeks at a time, and that’s quite a commitment if you have a young family,” Woods outlined.

Solutions for Women

Woods has two children and she credits her “fantastic” husband for supporting her career.

“For almost every father who’s made it as a partner at a big firm like V&E, he’s got a partner at home who’s taken a career back seat and has supported him, and I think it’s absolutely no different when it’s women who make it. That’s certainly my experience” Woods said.

Whether they have supportive spouses or not, IDR attorneys-turned-mothers can find support through AW’s parental mentoring program, which pairs women on or just returning from parental leave with more senior attorneys who can help them navigate the transition back into working life. Woods designed and launched the program.

Mentors provide guidance on “anything from practical tips on childcare to handling your workload as you leave the office to go on maternity leave to decisions around whether you want to have a flexible working arrangement when you return,” she explained. “The mentor is basically someone you can discuss your concerns with who isn’t directly involved in your career decisions. She’s not a boss and not someone you work with, but someone who knows what it’s like to do what you do.”

MacGrath added that the program “helps to remove the stigma around discussions of ‘work/life balance’ and the challenges of being both a successful professional and parent – the challenges that are at the heart of the female pipeline leakage at law firms.”

AAW also provides more conventional mentoring for mothers and non-mothers alike, as well as a range of initiatives designed to help its members gain access to professional opportunities, from various networking events to a database of female arbitrators that attorneys and clients can consult when considering arbitration tribunal appointments. V&E compliments AW’s work through the firm’s own Women’s Initiative, which supports women across the firm’s practice areas and is co-lead in London by Woods.

Woods said both at V&E and in the broader arbitration space, there are significant signs of progress. Three-quarters of the associates in V&E’s London-based international dispute resolution group are women while another female IDR attorney, Susanna Fidoe, was recently promoted to counsel. Arbitral institutions are reporting rising numbers of arbitratal appointments for women in recent years, and some law firm clients are now proactively asking their outside counsel to look for female arbitrators to join tribunals. The latter development, Woods said, might be linked to an increase in the number of women holding general counsel positions.

“I am finding more and more that I’m dealing with female general counsels or very senior commercial people who are women and who are actively looking to promote diversity,” she said, “and they want to know, ‘Is there a woman we could appoint?'”

If the trend continues, there will be fewer cases of female IDR attorneys finding themselves alone amongst their male peers.

“I shouldn’t be the only woman in a room out of 15,” said Barlow. “That’s not representative of the arbitration community as a whole, and hopefully these situations will become a thing of the past.”