You do not have the right to remain silent - time to change the norm for women in law.

You do not have the right to remain silent - time to change the norm for women in law.

International Women’s Day is celebrated in organisations worldwide and LexisNexis is no exception. Our recent Aspire event facilitated by Sophie Gould, included an interactive panel session to discuss this year's International Women's Day campaign theme Each for Equal.

We were honoured to have a panel that was made up of some of the UK’s most recognised women in law.  These included Christina Blacklaws, ex-President of The Law Society and consultant at Blacklaws Consulting, Nnenna Ezeike, Head of Employment Law at Marex Spectron and Mary Bonsor, CEO and Co-Founder of F-LEX.  

The session covered their experiences as lawyers over the years, why diversity and inclusion is so important to them and how both male and female in-house colleagues can help to create a gender-equal workplace.

Christina Blacklaws opened by highlighting that Each for equal is a chance to celebrate how far women have come in law. Understanding that race, sexuality and disability also play a big part. However, despite the fact we have seen some progress, it is still not enough. She reiterated that everyone has a role, even an obligation, in making the change. “It is beholden to us to take action”.

“Although women outweigh men in the solicitors’ profession (women have increased every year since 2005) - looking at the largest law firms, you will struggle to find women at the top. It’s important we understand what barriers are preventing women from progressing their careers” explained Christina.

Christina also highlighted research conducted under a programme focused on women in leadership which she developed and led. The project produced the largest ever global survey on women in leadership.  Based on results from 250 roundtables in 22 jurisdictions, the research showed that whenever a woman was asked about the barriers to her career success, the primary reason was the same.  Unconscious bias.  This was consistently followed by the challenges presented by the law being “male shaped” and lack of work-life balance.

Mary agreed on the important role data plays in highlighting the challenge – but that the results have to be addressed.

“It’s important we see a more equal playing field at all levels of the profession. We currently see 60% of females in junior positions and under 20% of females in senior positions. We need to address the drop off”

Mary went on to explain an instance in the US where 170 General Counsel wrote to their panels stating they would not place work unless their law firms published their diversity statistics. She reiterated, along with Nnenna, the power of the client to drive positive change in law firms and the legal profession as a whole.  She challenged the audience, as in-house lawyers, to hold themselves accountable here – regardless of their seniority,

Read our news analysis from LexisPSL on why law firm diversity is important to general counsel.

 

So how can that be addressed and what can women do to surpass the barriers?

 Nnenna continued the theme of accountability for in-house lawyers and the power of legal spend. “Whether junior or senior – you are the client. Be intentional and ask the question. Make it known how important diversity is to you”.

 Nnenna also highlighted that “We should keep in mind that not all women face the same barriers.  What may take several years for a white woman to achieve, may take double the time for a woman of colour or a woman with a disability”

 On an additional practical note, Nnenna pointed out that there are many actions organisations can take to support the inclusion of women - including offering work experience, in-house traineeships and mentoring. Nnenna highlighted the work of Aspiring Solicitors – where she sits on the Board - in boosting the career trajectory of lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 The ‘2020 Parker Report 'Ethnic Diversity Enriching Business Leadership' showed that 150 companies out of 256 (59%) did not have at least one director of colour on their Boards

 Mary suggested one of the most important things we can do is be held accountable. She explained women should be responsible for speaking out when something isn’t right.  They should not be afraid to ask for more or challenge the usual norms. She acknowledged that this could be tricky, especially in the moment if as a woman you are in the minority and do not want to be labelled as difficult. Christina agreed and shared her advice on, power in numbers, and that men needed to be included in the discussion.

“We need to focus on the role of men to promote diversity in their organisations. We have not been able to achieve this on our own. We need to get the men involved. The reality is most decision makers are still white men – we really do need them to be with the programme and be activists for gender equality.”

Christina reinforced that “Diversity and inclusion is important for everyone and for our mental health. And inclusion and diversity equate with profitability.”

So what can men do to support women in furthering their careers?

Christina – “Men can speak out – if someone one from the dominant culture calls the behavior out, it will be more powerful than when a woman does it. Let’s walk together on this journey because we are all going to benefit from it.”

Mary – “It all comes down to awareness and your own awareness of the unconscious bias. We shouldn’t celebrate that only 40% are women, it should be 50/50- making business decisions to make equality a reality”

Nnenna– “It’s about making people look around and acting now. Stop wasting time, waiting for utopia. It’s important to remember we all make mistakes – be the advocate. Don’t get involved in the gossip, treat it as you would when a white man does it. Help her get her work done. Support her. Be a true ally to the women you’re working with”

The panel concluded with all three women urging the younger generation of in-house lawyers to not be afraid to speak up, to challenge the norm and continue the fight for equality in law and in the workplace.

“There is more of an openness in the legal profession now – a want to understand the next generation of lawyers – what will attract the top talent?. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a major impact as a junior lawyer by speaking up” concluded Christina

Read more on our Aspire program here and don’t miss our next event on 3rd June 2020.

Here’s some additional reading and insights for you to bookmark.

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