Pledge for parity in law: International Women’s Day 2016

Pledge for parity in law: International Women’s Day 2016

International Women’s Day, a day of worldwide celebration of women’s contribution to social, economic, cultural and political achievement, has a theme for 2016 to pledge to reach gender parity.

“Everyone – men and women – can pledge to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity more quickly – whether to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, call for gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference, develop more inclusive and flexible cultures or root out workplace bias.”

The Law Society invited several inspiring speakers to discuss how the legal profession might address some of the current disparities in the profession including the continuing issues of lack of gender balanced leadership at the top of the profession, despite 60% of those entering the profession being female, and the gender pay gap which in the legal profession still stands at over 30%, increasing to over 40% for those females which do manage to rise to the top.

Friendly policies, not family friendly policies

Laura Devine, managing partner at Laura Devine Solicitors, and Council Member of the Law Society called in her key note speech for pay to be based on merit and contribution rather than value being based on time spent, and suggested that women should be involved in the setting of salaries at all levels of remuneration across the firm. She also suggested that pro-bono work, article writing, attending events and giving training presentations should be given a value in the same way as a billable hour and measured accordingly; these skills add value to the firm. Laura also called for an abandoning of family friendly policies which should be replaced with friendly work/life balance policies from which any employee can benefit.

Measuring the gender pay gap

Across the legal profession, the gender pay gap stands at over 30%, dictated in part by the traditional three issues which affect women’s pay in the profession: pace of career (typical to take time off or at least off the accelerator when raising a family), level of career reached and area of law (typically women are still more likely to work in less well remunerated areas).  Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC suggests that the first thing firms need to address is to establish whether they do in fact have a problem, calling for firms to have a more transparent promotion structure, and advising women that they must not be afraid of asking for a pay rise.

Some firms try and get around the issue by suggesting as they pay on merit rather than traditional lockstep, it is impossible to consider there is a gender pay gap issue, the panel was of the opinion that firms need to be made to worry about why they need to solve the gender pay gap issue across the profession. Ensuring there is a balanced talented pool from which to select the partnership needs to become part of the firm’s business strategy and by closing eyes to a gender pay gap, firms are limiting that partnership pool. Of course, as Robert Bourns, vice-President of the Law Society observed, whether partnership continues to be an attractive model for running a firm or attracting the best talent remains to be seen.

Mandatory gender pay gap reporting is being introduced for firms with over 250 employees, which will force some firms to take a closer look, no doubt using the next 12 months to ensure that any gaps which can be identified are ironed out where possible. Of course, there are questions to be raised about the draft wording, including whether partners are included in the reporting.

Inspiring women in the sector: investing in mentoring and networking

Dame Janet had some practical suggestions for women to succeed to the upper reaches of the profession, including spending time considering one’s own personal brand and ensure you are known for something; have a plan, and get organized. She emphasized the importance of keeping up with networks, which was echoed by Christina Blacklaws, director of Client Services, Cripps LLP and Council member, Women Lawyers Division, The Law Society, who advised being strategic in planning who you need to help you build your career and building networks to fill those needs.

The role men need to play to solve the problem

The overwhelming issue here is that women know that there is a problem, but still as a profession we struggle to work out how to fix it, illustrated perfectly by the audience at The Law Society – a host of women discussing articulately and intelligently but largely preaching to the converted. Men need to encourage women to be leaders (and women need to stop waiting to be asked to dance) and utilize their position of being able to drive change.

Both Dame Janet and Christina Blacklaws were in agreement with Laura Devine that flexible working needs to be embraced by men as well as women, and needs not to be seen by management as a working mum’s issue. Women also need men as mentors; the profession as a whole still needs to move away from the attitude that women won’t be around at the firm long enough to make it worth investing in a mentee relationship. Likewise, transparency around how pay rises and promotions are acquired, particularly in relation to lateral hires, which are invariably male, will go some way to assisting with men engaging in the issue.

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