In 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the “1919 Act”) was passed, allowing women, for the first time, to enter the legal profession in the UK.
As we celebrate the centenary of the 1919 Act this year, this summary sets out the findings of The Law Society’s most recent diversity project, the International Women in Law Roundtables (the “Roundtables”).
Between July 2018 and April 2019, the Roundtables engaged with 712 female lawyers across 18 jurisdictions, all at different stages in their careers, to discuss the barriers they face and to identify, from their perspective and experiences, strategies to generate transformative changes within the industry.
The International Women in Law Report (the “Report”) summarised the Roundtables’ findings and, despite a few contextual differences, it was found that the challenges and experiences of female lawyers are very similar across the globe.
The findings of the Report
With a focus on the European Roundtables, this summary considers the three key global barriers documented by the Report: I. gender pay gaps; II. flexible working; and, III. unconscious bias.
Barrier I. Gender pay gaps
Participants concurred that men are perceived to be more assertive in asking for a salary increase and addressing the issue of bonuses. It was acknowledged that although remuneration structures can be firm dependent, to allow for objective remuneration it is important that structures are in place to measure fairly an employee’s overall contribution.
Proposed solution: The reporting process across Europe has improved the transparency of gender pay gaps, but the participants remarked that more can be done. It was proposed that evidence gathering and the ability to compare pay within a business could aid the elimination of gender pay gaps.
Barrier II. Flexible working
The stigma attached to flexible working was found to be a barrier for women in the workplace. There was concern that a culture of presenteeism dramatically affects one’s ability to work flexibly, and that not working in the office can be equated to a lack of commitment or unwillingness to work hard. The participants found that generally flexible working was met with apprehension by firms. In some cases, it was largely dependent on the opinion of a supervisor, with some being more open to the concept than others.
Proposed solution: The participants acknowledged that an institutional cultural shift is needed to successfully integrate this practice in the workplace. There was an agreement however that more flexibility would lead to higher productivity levels, greater loyalty and commitment, an increased trust and accountability and, most significantly, more successful female lawyers. Participants also agreed that attitudes are changing slowly because men are also seeking more flexible working, for varying reasons.
Barrier III. Unconscious bias
A common theme of the Roundtables was working mothers being penalised as societal expectations place the main caregiving responsibilities on women; such expectations entrenching the assumption that men are to make the workplace their focus.
Discussions further considered traditional routes to promotion, including a feeling of compulsion to return to work shortly after giving birth to show commitment, as well as the need to maintain contacts, with client networking demands often requiring attendance at evening events, putting those responsible for childcare at a disadvantage.
Proposed solution: The Roundtables believed that interactive training to bring awareness to, and demystify, unconscious bias would be most useful. It was noted that such training should include men and women and that all can benefit from addressing gender bias, as the discussions acknowledged that there can be an unconscious bias towards the same sex.
Fast forward from 1919 to 2017, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (the “SRA”) recorded that 61.6% of solicitors admitted to the roll that year were women and 38.4% were men. In the same year, 50.1% of women and 49.9% of men held practicing certificates.
Despite the recognised growth of female representation, the findings of the Roundtables show that there are still barriers preventing women in particular from progressing in the industry and the statistics support this; the SRA reported that only 33% of partners in 2017 were women. However, the solutions presented could be beneficial for both men and women to make the legal profession more dynamic.
The collation of quantitative and qualitative data like that in the Report, provides a common understanding and common goals, which the industry, together, can unite behind. Although law is not the only industry addressing issues of inequality, perhaps, as legal advocates, we should be leading the way.
You can access the report here.
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