The issue of gender progression in the legal profession has always been a hot potato, with the noticeable lack of women in senior roles never far from the headlines. The latest figures state that women in partnership roles in the UK’s top 100 firms is still, on average, at less than 25%.
The reasons behind the lack of women at the top are hardly new news – it is well documented that the biggest contributing factor is ‘bias’. Once the domain of psychology experts, the term now has a permanent place in firm parlance.
Bias takes on many guises, from abstract sexism to perceptions of power and efficiency being linked to male traits. It is widely acknowledged there still is a – perhaps unconscious – notion that men are generally treated better because women are more self-critical and therefore less assertive.
Then, there is the whole motherhood issue. Until recently, law firms often cited motherhood as a reason for not having women in senior management roles, believing new mothers would not relish the responsibility of partnership when they already had the responsibility of parenthood to contend with. Indeed, some firms actively tried to put their employees off motherhood.
10 years ago, I was an associate in a private practice City law firm,” says Liz (43). “I was told that ‘having ovaries, and choosing to use them, isn’t really compatible with being a partner’. A colleague was told ‘the firm pays you enough so your husband won’t have to work if you have a baby’.
Fortunately, thanks to the public outcry and efforts from organisations such as Women in the City and the 30% Club, firms have moved on. Personal development training, diversity schemes and women in partnership initiatives are now very much in vogue. However, even the firms with the best intentions may find they have feet of clay.
Anna (36) works in a client facing role in a top tier firm. Her experience demonstrates that motherhood is still a potential career killer.
We have a very visible scheme for getting more women into partnership. However, [after my maternity leave] I wanted to drop to 80% over the year (as in working full time on projects and then taking time in lieu) and was told I would need to take on a non-client facing role. I fought and got it and client feedback was great but the internal view was I couldn’t be promoted because I wasn’t demonstrating sufficient commitment.
Bringing in the Changes
Change in attitudes in UK law firms is happening, albeit slowly. Part of the reason for this lethargy may be societal. For many millennials, the issue of inequality is simply not on their radar, as freelance diversity consultant Alison notes,
I work with loads of young people who think I’m this crazy hairy-legged feminist. Then they experience one too many male-dominated meetings, or get excluded from a new project for which they know they have an appropriate skill set, or mention ‘family’ and suddenly see that the battle for equality is far from over!
Just what, then, does the next generation need?
Our focus group says agile/flexible working without losing career prospects; career progression; support; recognition; and eradication of bias.
Flexibility and agile working seem to be on the way. Natasha Harrison, Managing Partner (London) of Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP is all for more flexibility.
Clients don’t care whether I am sitting in my office or sitting in my home office….as long as I can concentrate and focus on them and I am accessible.
Further proof is provided by Reed Smith LLP who have just introduced a firm-wide agile working policy allowing individuals to “take a more ad-hoc approach to varying their hours and/or location”.
But what about career progression, especially after maternity leave? Tamara Box, Managing Partner for Europe and the Middle East at Reed Smith stresses it is achievable, but it’s a two-way street to get there: if the firm trusts you to deliver, and you trust the firm to deliver, it will happen.
Bias will continue to exist unless firms make major advances in acknowledging its existence and making amends. Tamara Box believes that eradicating bias starts with being vigilant, centres on developing role models and neutralising language, and is complete when diversity is the norm.
Diversity and inclusion
Thanks to a lot of good research and significant championing for change, the last three years have seen law firms ramp up support gender progression, social mobility, diversity and inclusion.
Natasha Harrison makes diversity a priority,
To me the most important thing in any team is diversity …It’s not just diversity in males and females, it’s diversity in personality and skillset. When I put together a team for a specific case I am very careful to choose a diverse team… different people, different skillsets, different backgrounds, because we look at the issues from unique perspectives and that has been very successful.
“We have to value difference,” says Tamara Box. “And to value difference, we have to allow it to exist.” She believes law firms have accepted diversity is good for business; they now need to ensure that diversity is sustainable, and that can be achieved through access to role models, mentoring and appropriate support.
Leading Women Lawyers
Diversity, inclusion and progression is not the sole responsibility of law firms – legal recruitment firms should also take a proactive role in ensuring sustainability.
Cogence Search’s ‘Leading Women Lawyers’ is a series of interviews with just a few of those role models. These women have battled through the obstacles, of which there are many, and have succeeded. For them it hasn’t been because they are somehow extraordinary; they have made it by ensuring support from their firms and by ensuring their choices are championed by those around them.
The series starts with an interview with Natasha Harrison, entitled “Lessons for my younger self”. Natasha gives a candid account of her career, the decisions she made and the pitfalls she negotiated on her journey to the top of her profession. Tamara Box follows, offering insight and advice on ‘Diversity, inclusion and progression’ within the context of her own career. Over the course of 2017 Cogence offers six further interviews with leading women who offer hope, inspiration and support.