Women in the law: leadership and equality
This article authored by our Family Department Partner Priya Dhokia, appeared in the Autumn issue of the Bill of Middlesex –
Women currently represent just over half of practising solicitors in England and Wales*. Yet according to data** collected by the SRA in 2017, only 37% of partners in mid-size law firms are female (and only 21% of all lawyers are from BAME backgrounds).
So why is it that the profession continues to be dominated by men in leadership roles?
There are in my view two main issues which I would label NATURE and CULTURE.
Looking at NATURE first, many women take a career break to have children at which point they either decide to return to work after maternity leave with the requirement of flexible working (which is not always granted) or they decide to leave the profession altogether.
These days many women are very career orientated, often having children later in life, because they wish to establish a level of seniority prior to having any childcare responsibilities. But in doing so they also run the risk of limiting their career prospects, by being overly cautious about when they become partners, routinely delaying taking on additional responsibility until after they have children – which is of course, entirely understandable.
Which leads to the issue of CULTURE, where I see three main challenges faced by female lawyers:
Partnership is often seen as an “all or nothing” situation. Many lawyers still think that partners should work constantly from the office, thus sacrificing any real chance of a home or family life. This is particularly troubling for female lawyers who are trying to juggle motherhood with work, especially if they do no not have the appropriate support at home.
Despite flexible working hours becoming increasingly popular, there is still the belief that clients want their lawyers to be in the office all day, every day. However, this is not necessarily the case. There needs to be a shift in approach and an acceptance that clients are in favour of agile working.
These days, with the assistance of technology, much of our work can be done remotely, by telephone, email and even video conference calls, save for those occasions where it is necessary to be client facing or in court. Having said that, “flexible hours” for Civil cases are currently being piloted at Brentford County Court (and Family cases in Manchester) which means that one could sit from as early as 8am or until as late as 7pm. If the pilot scheme is rolled out nationwide, it will be even more difficult for those with childcare commitments, whether you are male or female, bearing in mind that it is likely result in longer working days once you take into account travel time, the conference with your client before any hearing or indeed the debrief afterwards.
In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) and market research company Acritas conducted the largest-ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the profession. Nearly 40% cent of women in the UK legal profession told researchers that they had been sexually harassed at work***. There is a clear gender imbalance which still exists.
Junior lawyers tend to work closely with their superiors, who are predominantly male, and are reliant on them for career progression. Often, female lawyers who have experienced some form of harassment, are reluctant to report it for fear of either losing their job or being denied a promotion.
A combination of feelings of inferiority and victimisation as a result of harassment, and the misconception that women are unworthy and incapable of making it to partnership are reasons for there being fewer female lawyers at partner level.
3) Masculine values
As mentioned above, the culture of those already in the profession needs to change. According to a Law Society survey, many women are put off by the “masculine shape of the law”. Sports evenings and socials that extend late into the evening tend to be less appealing to female lawyers than their male counterparts. In fact, the survey also showed that there are a number of women who admitted having progressed in their career by becoming “men-shaped women”. This way of living is only be sustainable for so long, leading many women to turn their back on a career in law altogether.
So, what is the way forward to encourage women to develop fulfilling careers in the legal profession?
Firstly, I believe that young, female lawyers need to see women in positions of seniority who can become role models. It is important for them to see that it is possible to be a mother at the same time as having a successful career. Senior female lawyers, particularly those in existing leadership roles, should take an active role in the career development and in mentoring those more junior. Such schemes should be encouraged within law firms. Where mentoring schemes do not currently exist within your firm, then either push to create one or seek out your own private arrangement.
With good mentoring, female lawyers can learn how to take more seats at the partnership table (if that is what they want). Of course, once you become a partner, you should have more flexibility as far as your working hours are concerned, allowing you to facilitate your childcare commitments. This makes the prospect of coming back to work post children, more manageable and consequently may assist with the retention of talented lawyers within the profession.
Secondly, not all women may want to become partners, so it is important that firms harness their talent and develop alternative career paths, with rewarding schemes encouraging specialist expertise and supporting agile working. Finding the right fit as far as your firm is concerned is therefore key.
Lastly women should consider the option of taking their fate and careers in their own hands by setting their own legal consultancies, working outside the traditionally rigid law firm structure.
That being said, the onus is on all members of the legal profession – men and women – to redress the balance and create a more inclusive and diversified environment where all talent will be able to flourish.