Each for Equal: Is diversity in the legal profession really 20 years away?

Each for Equal: Is diversity in the legal profession really 20 years away?

Our recent Aspire event for young in-house counsel was hosted on Wednesday 4th March at Lexis House in Farringdon, London. Around 50 young in-house lawyers gathered to network, share a drink and listen to speakers on current hot topics.

We heard from an expert panel around gender equality and diversity issues, including Christina Blacklaws, and her equality research with The Law Society, Mary Bonsor, CEO at F-LEX and Nnenna Ezeike, Head of the Employment legal function at Marex Spectron. Also speaking at the event, was Angela Henshall of the BBC’s 50:50 project, as well as Samantha Skinner and Ian Watson from Amazon’s legal team.

Each for Equal

Our Each for Equal panel discussion at the event coincided appropriately with International Women’s Day.

This period often reignites discussions around equality in many industry sectors—of which the legal profession is no different. Many men and women continue to band together to address the concept of unconscious bias in the workplace—a topic which was given a clear focus at our event.

Panel member, Mary Bonsor, CEO of F-LEX, began discussions by stating that although progress has been made, the imbalance of women in the profession remains a key challenge for businesses.

She highlighted that at the start of the career track, the legal cohort comprises 60% women, whereas towards the end, we are seeing just 20% of female lawyers advancing to the senior level.  

In an interview with The Law Society Gazette, last month, Dana Denis-Smith of Obelisk Support stated that many women working in the law remain sceptical about the pace of change around diversity. Only 2% of the respondents felt there is ‘true equality for women’ and an alarming 80% of women predicting that it ‘would take at least 20 years to achieve’.[1]

The glass ceiling?

From the numerous research studies that have been conducted on this topic, we know that diverse workplaces are far more effective than those that aren’t. [Fig. 1] In spite of this, many women still feel gender is a ‘barrier to advancement’. [Fig. 2]

[Fig. 1 & 2]

 

Men were still seen to dominate at the top with 52% agreeing that it is still easier for men in their organisations to achieve a promotion than women. Less than half felt women were fairly represented in the senior management of their organisation.
'Gender discrimination is rife,' explained one partner. 'The "boys' network" remains in full force, excluding women from networking opportunities and bullying them so that they feel inadequate and incapable."

[Equality is taking too long, The Law Society Gazette]

So, is there an upside to all of this? My view is that the increased press attention and discussions on the issue will galvanise efforts and provoke positive change in the long-term.  

Progress has already been made in many firms.  They have made steps towards increased adaptability and flexibility enabling men and women to focus more on life outside of work. A&O is fairly well-known for this, having recently announced that they will increase their paternity leave allowance six-fold, in a drive to keep up with ‘changing family life’. In some areas,  societal change is less than 20 years away.

These days, many people decide to work alongside raising a family. Therefore, this business model will likely increase loyalty among employees who value an alternative to the traditional mindset.

One partner at a large national firm said: 'I am proud to work for a firm which has given me the opportunity to work flexibly and supported me through the route to partnership whilst working part-time and encouraging me to continue to do so.'
A solicitor responded: 'The partners in my firm have been very supportive of me. I was always told that it wasn’t possible to do this job part-time but here I am working three days a week, with flexible, agile working and term time only, so that I can spend quality time with my three young children.'

[Equality is taking too long, The Law Society Gazette]

According to our panel “accountability”, from both men and women, across industries, is key for driving real progress in society. Christina Blacklaws stated that “we all have a huge role to play in creating a level playing field”. For her, ‘Each for Equal’ meant “a chance to live without stereotypes”.

Christina also quoted unconscious bias as the primary barrier preventing women from succeeding, according to responses from both men and women in the recent gender equality survey conducted by the Law Society – Women in Leadership in Law report, 2019.  

A level playing field

According to our panel, young in-house lawyers should bear in mind that they are the client.  They possess a fundamental power and “influence over legal spend”. They therefore have the capacity to expediate change among traditional belief systems by speaking up and making small incremental changes.

One example given was to ask about a company’s diversity policy in the initial stages of working together. This small act, said Mary Bonsor, could be “very transformative” for the future of the equality in the profession.

When one female lawyer asked for advice in bringing change, “without being labelled ‘the difficult one’”, this was noted as an inherently ‘female’ concern—the fact that asking questions and standing up for diversity could be “career limiting”.

The panel advised to consider “safety in numbers”. One expert went on to explain how she had provoked change in her company’s maternity policy by first, using benchmarking data portrayed an industry average, then, by receiving the support of a Senior Partner and a petition signed by a number of the firm’s employees.

It was also stated that there are many men of former generations who admit sadness at not having had the chance to have spend more time with their families. A level playing field is a two-way street, and therefore it’s important to be conscious of all existing societal biases. 

[1] These results were taken from survey data from interviews with 700 solicitors, barristers and other women working in the profession. The study was commissioned by the First 100 Years project to mark 100 years of women practising the law.

 

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About the author:

Amy is an established writer and researcher, having contributed to publications, such as The Law Society, LPM, City A.M. and Financial IT. Her role at LexisNexis UK involved leading content and thought leadership, as well as writing research reports, including "The Bellwether Report 2020, Covid-19: The next chapter" and "Are medium-sized firms the change-makers in legal?"