INTERVIEW: Ilse van Gasteren discusses Gender Diversity in The Netherlands

Contributed by
Female lawyer
25 Sep 2019

Ilse van Gasteren is a partner with Clifford Chance in Amsterdam and specialises in restructurings and insolvencies. 


Ilse Van Gasteren, Clifford Chance Amsterdam.

FOR Van Gasteren, the Dutch legal sector has certainly made progress in terms of gender diversity in the 18 years since she started out. “I looked for a diverse firm as I was not only a woman, but LGBT+ and there were both female and LGBT+ partners at Clifford Chance,” she recalls. She thinks that people joining the sector now may examine diversity as a matter of course, as there is such a focus on it. Gender diversity is a real topic in the Dutch legal market at present, which Van Gasteren says is being driven by client demand: “Clients demand diversity and take away work if it’s not present.”  

When it comes to the demographic of the clients making those decisions, 39% of the GCs in The Netherlands are female. In comparison, law firms still struggle to reach a target of at least 30% female partners, and none among the large Dutch law firms have yet made it to 50% female partners. 

This, for Van Gasteren, is where the problem lies: not with recruitment, but with progression. Getting women to partnership remains a problem. Previously confined as a CSR (corporate social responsibility) topic, gender diversity is now included in strategies adopted by law firms – including Clifford Chance – and there is more focus on promoting women. One particular facet of this is that part time working has become more acceptable.  

However, until men can also take parental leave or work part time without it affecting their careers, Van Gasteren thinks there will still be a disparity: “It’s a cultural change and it’s on the radar. Male parental paid leave has recently been improved in the Netherlands, but still only to a few days. We’re not yet Sweden!” 

Clifford Chance in Amsterdam has invested particular resources in addressing the issue of female progression. They enlisted a gender diversity and behavioural science expert from Harvard, who did a full data analysis of their systems to assess whether the promotion and appraisal models had any biases. This expert also looked at the factors causing lawyers to leave practice. As a result of this, appraisal processes and career development schemes are being radically overhauled. There are also easy wins. For example, all appraisal meetings are now conducted with one male and one female in the room. The senior women involved are not always partners – interestingly, 40% of the counsels at Clifford Chance Amsterdam are women. 

“…That would be a critical mass within a partner group and there would be more role models. It would change the environment.”

Van Gasteren explains that often counsels have their own reasons for not pursuing a partner role, which may include the wish for a better work-life balance or other interests outside of work that they wish to invest time in. Others view the counsel role as a step towards partnership. The Clifford Chance Amsterdam partners have, in light of the report by its Harvard expert, now committed in their strategy to triple the number of female partners in Amsterdam within the next four years from two to six. Women partners are currently 10% of the Amsterdam partnership, so they want to increase this: “That would be a critical mass within a partner group and there would be more role models. It would change the environment,” Van Gasteren comments. 

Although the Harvard project was unique to Clifford Chance, in other Dutch firms there is also a focus on developing leadership programmes to enhance the careers of women. In Clifford Chance as elsewhere, coaching, mentoring, and reverse mentoring are being used to promote women’s careers and to change attitudes. 

The future holds promise. In November 2018, 57% of all Netherlands lawyers were male, but 57% of trainees were female; if the measures being taken to ensure the progression of women in the industry work, they will have bright futures ahead of them.