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Women in Leadership in Law – are we there yet?

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Women in Leadership in Law – are we there yet?

I am absolutely passionate about supporting more women into leadership roles in the law. It’s an issue which is at the core of my heart and one which I placed at the very centre of my time as president of the Law Society.

I tried hard to make out the case that gender equality is good for everyone: it is not just an issue for 50%, but 100% of us. It works for men as well as women, it supports other protected characteristics by liberating us from our stereotypes and enables us all to thrive in a diverse and supportive environment which – guess what – is great for our mental health and wellbeing.

Compelling research evidences that gender equality equates with profitability. There’s so much to be gained, it’s amazing we still have to discuss it

And if that isn’t enough, then I can make out a hard-nosed business case. Compelling research evidences that gender equality equates with profitability. There’s so much to be gained, it’s amazing we still have to discuss it! Yet, sadly, we do as we’re not anywhere near ‘there’ yet.

Today, 62% of new entrants to the profession in England and Wales are women, along with 51% of practising certificate holders. We are the majority, but we are by no means the dominant force.

Inequality persists in the senior ranks as 69% of partners in private practice are men, in other words only 31% are women. Even though considerable strides have been made, our research found systemic bias. Surely, it is completely unacceptable that today people are still being held back from fulfilling their potential because of their gender, race or any other protected characteristic?

Consequently, we decided to undertake the largest ever global research on this issue – involving over 8000 lawyers worldwide. Together, we identified the key barriers to women’s career progression:

• 52% of respondents saw unconscious and conscious bias as the main barrier;

• 49% recognised an unacceptable work/life balance demanded to reach senior levels as a major concern;

• 46% were concerned that the law was ‘male shaped’ with traditional networks/route to promotion being male-orientated;

What’s more, 60% were aware of a gender or equal pay gap issue in their firm or business.

We used these insights to inform our roundtables, of which we completed over 250 across 5 continents, in 18 jurisdictions, involving around 5,000 women and men in the profession.

We created specific toolkits – one for women and one for men, to focus on the primary issues and solutions, and to encourage everyone to become activists for gender equality in their organisations and communities.

We grouped our findings into three insight reports: one from the domestic women’s roundtables, another from our Male Champions for Change, and finally, our findings from the international community.

With a few exceptions, women lawyers still do not uniformly occupy leadership roles commensurate with their wishes, qualifications, experience and numbers

Overwhelmingly, we found that at every stage of a woman’s career, there are barriers preventing her from fulfilling her potential. With a few exceptions, women lawyers still do not uniformly occupy leadership roles commensurate with their wishes, qualifications, experience and numbers.

Some of the key themes included:

A. Influencing for impact

Not fitting into the traditional image of a business leader – how the archetypal image of what it takes to lead favours characteristics that are traditionally ‘male’ whilst female traits are undervalued or seen negatively.

Lack of representation – there is a strong desire amongst women to see people in leadership who are ‘like me’ – people who we can relate to, which is particularly important for more junior women to see and feel they have senior leadership potential.

The impact that assumptions can have on ambitions – how being presumed to be the ‘tea-girl’, notetaker, or assistant to a more junior male colleague, can be corrosive, demoralising and undermining of our confidence. Assumptions of inferiority can have a devastating impact on our careers.

Time and again women told us about the many additional barriers they face – unless women from diverse backgrounds are promoted to the top tier, it signals that they are not wanted there, and as one participant told us ‘there is a push for women at the top, but there isn’t really any push for ethnic minorities…as you go higher and higher the colour seems to fade.’

B. Male Champions for Change 

As with the women’s roundtables, the men identified that there needs to be a focus on female promotion. Looking further down the talent pipeline to ensure that women are gaining suitable experience and credibility in the early years. For effective succession planning senior leadership needs to play a more proactive part. As one participant put it, “If businesses don’t change, women will vote with their feet.”

C. Advocating for change

I anticipated that the experiences of women across the world would vary significantly, but our findings evidenced that the challenges and experiences of female lawyers are very similar across the globe.

These are shared experiences in relation to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, gender pay disparity and the lack of flexible working.

Around the world, there are social and cultural expectations about how women should behave because of their gender. This was especially felt by working mothers who are penalised for their additional care-giving commitments outside of work.

There is also a serious lack of transparency about financial compensation across all regions. This prevents the identification of pay discrepancies and undermines or prevents accountability for ensuring fair remuneration and equal treatment.

So, at this stage of the article, you would be forgiven for feeling a little depressed, but I promise we get more upbeat now as we’ve come to the good part- the solutions!

In spite of the barriers to progression, believe me, there is hope.

From the survey, we identified some of the solutions:

• Access to and mainstreaming flexible working for all

• Mentoring and sponsorship

• Having visible role models for gender equality – men as well as women

• And crucially, the need to engage men in the debate. We need men to be responsible for bringing about gender equality in their firms and businesses.

Between the three reports we identified some further key solutions, including:

Leading from the top and by example – business leaders must walk the talk – demonstrating their active support for and engagement with strategies which develop inclusive workplaces;

Placing diversity at the centre of business planning – and recognising it as a priority in the same way as operational risk, compliance and financial monitoring;

Encouraging greater transparency – ranging from implementing clear policies on flexible working, to reporting on business-wide statistics relating to gender and ethnicity pay;

Providing consistent and reoccurring unconscious bias training – for all staff at all levels to make people aware of their biases and ensure they are not acting on them when making decisions about others;

Assessing recruitment, selection, promotion and remuneration policies – so that objective decisions are made based on competencies, qualities and attributes;

Having bystander training – to support others to ‘call it out’, implementing gender champions and having gender balance on any decision-making body;

• Making flexible working available to everyone at all levels of seniority by focusing on contributions made rather than time spent in the office.

And of course, there are more…

We also launched the ‘Women in Law Pledge’, an initiative led by all the representative bodies in the UK, and leading firms and legal businesses from across the profession and supported by the Ministry of Justice too.

Signatories to the Pledge commit to work together to address gender inequality. This includes tackling discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace, challenging the gender pay gap in our organisations, appointing a senior and accountable champion, addressing discriminatory workplace cultures and bias, and publishing targets and action plans.

It’s all about accountability.

Imagine the change if every law firm and legal department not only signed up, but implemented and enforced this pledge. It would be truly transformational.

So, what is my ask of you? Sign up, become an activist and make positive change happen!

Christina Blacklaws | Managing Director | Blacklaws Consulting

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