This December will mark the 100th anniversary of Carrie Morrison smashing through the legal profession’s glass ceiling to become the first woman admitted to the role in England.
Following a survey of diversity in law carried out in 2021, 90 per cent of law firms in England and Wales submitted data to the Law Society, asking staff to respond to a standard set of questions. The resulting analysis showed that women now make up 61 per cent of all solicitors.
A deeper dive into the statistics shows there is still work to be done to achieve true gender parity, as only 35 per cent of partners in law firms are women.
The issue of intersectionality was not addressed in the Law Society’s analysis, an oversight which mirrors a lack of attention in the industry and society to the question of how overlapping characteristics such as race and gender can inhibit careers.
Firms need to understand that the barriers facing women with disabilities, or women of colour, for example, are not the same as those facing white or non-disabled women.
Redressing the balance of access to opportunities and supporting all women to advance in their careers is not only the right thing to do – research has also shown that cognitive diversity is key to long-term business success. Analysis by McKinsey & Company (2019) found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.
The justification often used in response to questions about why there is such male dominance at partnership level is that the pool partners selected from are predominantly male. Therefore it follows that those selected are also predominantly male.
If it is correct that more men are applying for partnerships than women, then firms need to understand why this is and address the barriers preventing women from putting themselves forward.
Hurdles can be internal and/or external and firms need to tackle both. Earlier this year, Indeed’s Working on Wellbeing report found that nearly twice as many women suffer “very frequently or always” from imposter syndrome than men, and women are disproportionately more likely to experience self-doubt in the workplace.
LinkedIn’s Gender Insights Report (2019) found that in order to apply for a job, women feel they need to meet 100 per cent of the criteria, while men usually apply for roles after meeting about 60 per cent.
Firms should help women gain the confidence to apply for partnerships by creating a safe space for them to speak about their experiences and what they need to progress. Establishing an external mentoring programme is a good way to provide this support.
Although society is changing, women still face a childcare disparity and bear a greater burden of childcare responsibilities than men. Addressing this issue proactively is one obvious way firms can widen their talent pool.
Why is it that job sharing is so uncommon in the law profession? And term time working? We espouse the benefits of flexible working in the post-pandemic era but seem reluctant to embrace bolder approaches to true flexibility.
Law firms must put in place alternative working arrangements so that women with caring responsibilities do not miss out on opportunities.
Breaking with tradition
Being able to build and maintain business and referral networks is often a criterion used to assess partnership applications, but this can inadvertently disadvantage women. Traditionally networking events are very male-dominated. Golf, football matches or other sporting events historically have not been very welcoming to those with disabilities, people of colour and women. When was the last time your firm sponsored or invited clients to a cultural or arts event?
Of course, women do enjoy sport, but in a world where they may have grown up with limited access to sport – the sports gender gap was highlighted recently following the Lionesses’ spectacular Euro win – it is no surprise women may be hesitant to attend sporting networking events.
Why do our expenses policies not allow for the recovery of babysitting expenses or after-school clubs to ensure women have the same access to out-of-hours networking events as men?
In addition, as women progress, they often take on more non-client-related roles, such as chairing internal committees or leading on diversity and inclusion. Inevitably this takes them away from fee earning, so firms must ensure that when they are looking at costs delivered as a promotion criterion, these non-chargeable but business-critical roles are accounted for.
Where a group of people who share a protected characteristic have suffered a historical disadvantage because of that characteristic, it may be right to take steps to treat that group more favourably.
Under the Equality Act 2010, positive action is lawful and should not be confused with positive discrimination, which is not. Where those sharing a protected characteristic suffer a disadvantage, it is open to an employer to take proportionate action to enable that group to overcome the disadvantage. For example, setting targets for female representation at partnership level.
Law firms need to think about equality of opportunity in the context of positive action, the recruitment tie-breaker provisions in the Equality Act and setting targets (not quotas). Any such initiatives should be regularly monitored so firms can pivot quickly if measures are not working. A good starting point would be to read and sign the Law Society’s Women In Law Pledge.
The journey ahead
To achieve gender parity at partnership level, look at recruitment as a whole and consider the entire journey from school pupil to solicitor.
As stated in the 2022 Parker Review, people cannot move up the ladder if they aren’t even getting onto the first rung.
Arranging outreach sessions at sixth form colleges or schools or in social mobility cold spots is a great way to make the law more accessible. Firms can offer a work experience programme, mock interviews and networking events for young people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to gain insights on becoming a solicitor. Mentoring and reverse mentoring are important ways to ensure greater diversity and create a workplace which is inclusive in recruitment and progression.
Be bold and listen
Look at what needs to change within your firm, listen to the experiences of those within it and put in place initiatives recommended by the Law Society, the Parker Review and the Institute of Directors.
It’s OK to start small – the worst thing you can do is nothing.