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International Women’s Day: Two legal sector views

08 March 2016

For International Women's Day, Julie Ashdown and Leah Glover outline their views on how the legal sector can progress gender parity and support women.


How can law firms achieve gender parity?

Julie Ashdown looks at how the legal profession can close the gender pay gap and ensure more women rise to senior leadership positions.

It's International Women's Day on 8 March, a day when we celebrate the achievements of women. This year, the theme is ‘pledge for parity'. I was shocked to read that, earlier this year, the World Economic Forum estimated that it would be another 117 years before the global gender gap is closed in 2133.

Yet, the evidence shows that, for business at least, gender parity is a good thing. In a recent EY study, 64 per cent of high performing companies reported that men and women have equal influence on strategy in their organisations, compared with only 43 per cent of lower performing companies. There are also plenty of other studies which show that businesses have increased profitability, return on investment and innovation when women are counted among senior leadership.

Law firms trailing

So where are law firms when it comes to gender parity at senior levels? Way behind, in most cases. For the past 20 years, women have formed the majority of new admissions to the profession, and there are now slightly more women on the Roll than men (51.4 per cent). Half of all solicitors aged 50 or under are women. But barely 28 per cent of partners are women.

This shows that the problem now is less about attracting women to the legal profession, and more about keeping them and developing their talents and skills through career progression. Of course, this assumes that women actually want to get to the top. Executive Coaching Consultancy surveyed women working in the City and found that a lack of interest in pursuing a senior role is a significant issue for City law firms. Only one-third of women in law say they want a job in senior management or to achieve partnership, compared to just less than two-thirds in banking. In law, one in three young women have already ruled out pursuing a senior role, compared to one in five in banking. This may be because they look at the culture at the top - high pressure and competition, coupled with long hours - and decide that they don't want to work like that.

A number of law firms are in the 30% Club, setting themselves the challenge to appoint at least 30 per cent of women to their boards. As Lord Davies acknowledged in his final report last year, a great deal of progress has been made in appointing women to non-executive roles on boards. But the real gap now is the appointment of executive directors - senior people from within the organisation - and so the government has set up a new review under Sir Philip Hampton to look at ways to increase the number of women at this level.

So what's holding us back?

Firms and organisations do need to look more closely at their career-progression policies and programmes, and examine the reasons why women are not getting to senior positions. These can include:

  • lack of female role models at senior levels, particularly those demonstrating so-called female characteristics, rather than behaving like their male colleagues
  • organisational culture, including outdated perceptions of women, resistance to contemporary management practices, such as flexible working, and perceptions of client expectations, and
  • long hours and lack of support for fathers as well as mothers

What the Law Society is doing

We provide support in these areas for both firms and individual members. Signing up to the Diversity and Inclusion Charter gives firms access to a range of advice to help create a supportive and inclusive workplace, including toolkits on flexible working and equal pay. The biennial report, last published in 2015, shows the progress being made in the legal sector.

We hold regular City Diversity Forums in London, which look at emerging issues and profile good practice: the next takes place on 10 March, covering inter-generational understanding. We run the only inter-firm mentoring programme designed to improve diversity at senior levels of the profession, which provides female solicitors (and other under-represented groups) with access to experienced mentors and support.

We also host speed-networking evenings where women can talk to role models from law firms and in-house counsel about how they have achieved success. The Women Lawyers Division runs a returners course twice a year, to help women (and men) get back into the profession after a career break; the annual Fiona Woolf Lecture showcases a leading woman in the profession; and the division's newsletter also profiles the achievements of female solicitors.

Our annual events for International Women's Day bring together distinguished panellists and speakers to inspire and celebrate the achievements of women in the legal sector. This year's keynote speaker was Laura Devine, the Law Society's 2015 Woman Lawyer of the Year.

Find out more about our Diversity and Inclusion Charter

Find out more about the Women Lawyers Division

Attend our next free City Diversity Forum, 10 March

Attend the WLD returners course, 8-9 April

Follow the action around International Women's Day on Twitter: #IWD2016

Feminism in 2016 - the millennial view

Leah Glover looks at the particular challenges facing women of the 'millennial' generation working in the law, and how the sector can - and should - support them.

Female millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, have a lot to say about the way they want to work, and it does not involve the long-hours culture of 'burnout Britain' as a way to climb up the greasy corporate pole. A recent study by PwC (The Female Millennial: A New Era of Talent) highlighted that the female millennial wants more promotions, development and recognition of their achievements than ever before, but is also pushing for a change in corporate culture. The female millennial wants a better work-life balance, greater use of technology to enable flexible working patterns, and a creative workspace.

Interestingly, they also want a different type of management style. They want continual feedback from a manager who is committed to their professional development: think less 1980's Gordon Gekko 'lunch is for wimps' and more personal life coach. And it's not just the female millennials who want this change; a previous study by PwC dating back to 2011 (Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace) highlighted similar desires from both men and women.

Diversity, too, is of key importance to both millennial genders, and an implemented diversity plan that is taken seriously by its people is expected as the norm in organisations. Organisations must be able to 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk'. We are already failing the millennial generation when it comes to diversity, and they have us sussed. The 2011 PwC survey asked both male and female millennials what they thought about diversity in their organisations, and over 55 per cent of participants agreed that 'organisations talk about diversity but I don't feel opportunities are equal for all'.

Why this generation matters

According to the 2011 PwC report, millennials will form 50 per cent of the global workforce by 2020. If organisations want their pick of the best across both genders, they will have to adapt to a new way of working to attract and maintain talent compared to previous generations. It is clear from both the 2015 and 2011 reports that the millennial workforce are not afraid to move jobs if their needs are not met - many accept it as the only way to be rewarded and promoted for their professional achievements - which may cause an attrition crisis for organisations which refuse to ditch the old-school style for something more suited to this new-age generation.

What can be done to support female millennials

It is no secret that the legal profession is failing our female millennial generation. Luckily, many within this career-driven section of the workforce are trying to break through to partnership level. It was fantastic to see the Women in Law London (also known as WILL) network being set up by some clearly ambitious individuals to assist female associates in their journey through to partnership level. Its sheer popularity only highlights the real need of female associates for a network like this in the profession.

But why is an external network felt to be so necessary? What are organisations failing to do internally that has lead to female associates looking elsewhere for their inspiration and development needs? A lack of female role models across organisations is evident. A report this year from the Bar Council found a severe lack of female role models in our profession, finding that junior barristers needed 'role models and other women to support them,' and 'the lack of role models was identified as limiting empowerment'.

Similarly, the Executive Coaching Consultancy found that 68 per cent of junior female lawyers in private practice do not aspire to a senior role in their firm and 40 per cent of those had lost the ambition to do so. This is not unique to law firms; indeed, a report from Bain & Company in the United States found that after two years in the workplace, women's career aspirations dramatically lowered, but men's remain the same. Entering into a profession and quickly realising that one does not look like the type of person who will get promoted can dramatically reduce one's expectations and aspirations. The report cited insufficient support from supervisors and a lack of role models in the workplace as the main factors.

These are easy things for firms to fix, and doing so will help to retain female millennial talent. A more attentive management style will help to develop and encourage female associates in the way they desperately need.

Firms are unlikely to change their entire culture overnight, but a generational push from both sexes for a greater work-life balance using increased technology may combat some of the face-time culture often cited as the reason for the female associate 'brain drain' that occurs between qualification and partnership. It will certainly have a positive impact on those - men or women - needing flexibility in work to fit in with their family commitments.

It seems that there is also a greater role to play by management in coaching, promoting and developing this aspirational generation. Consistently, law firms respond to change rather than being the trailblazers, and it will be interesting to see if and how firms adapt to the new millennial generation and whether they are able to harness and develop some of the talent under their noses.

If you are interested in finding out more about how different generations can work together, the Law Society is hosting an event as part of its City Firms Diversity Forum Programme, called 'Intergenerational Understanding'.

If you are new to leadership (perhaps an ambitious millennial), or from another generation looking for ways to manage the new generation, why not come to our Leadership Workshop, 'Developing Authentic Leadership'.

Tags: leadership | education and training | diversity and inclusion | International Womens Day

About the author

Leah is a banking solicitor at DWF. She joined DWF in 2011 and qualified as a solicitor in 2014. She is a keen advocate for the promotion of equal rights for women. The youngest committee member, she has been vice-chair of the Women Lawyers Division since 2013 and will be chair from 2016.
Follow Leah on Twitter and tweet using #WLD

Julie Ashdown

Julie Ashdown OBE is head of Corporate Responsibility, Equality and Diversity at the Law Society. She was previously the chair of the board of trustees for Womankind Worldwide and before that spent 30 years in senior management for Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service. She was awarded an OBE in January 2015 for services to equality and diversity.
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