The Women in Law Pledge: friend or foe?

The Women in Law Pledge was launched in June 2019 and is a collaboration between the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. Eversheds Sutherland LLP was one of the early signatories.
Four women solicitors

Diane Gilhooley, global practice head of employment, labor and pensions at Eversheds Sutherland and partner sponsor for Evershed’s gender network and diversity and inclusion overall, takes the anniversary of the Pledge’s launch to review what it has meant to the firm and the wider profession and gives her thoughts on the future.

Challenges facing women in the profession

The launch of the Pledge for Eversheds Sutherland coincided with 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force in the UK and offered an opportunity to really highlight our existing and future work on the gender agenda. The Act opened up the ability for women to be appointed to or hold public office and enter professions – including law – which were previously off limits.

Although the act did not give any rights to women, it removed barriers and can be viewed as one of the earliest pieces of legislation designed to deliver equal opportunity. There have been significant strides since the act came into force, however, there are still obstacles in the profession, particularly at senior levels. This is demonstrated by the figures seen in the gender pay gap reports published across the legal profession.

It is clear that the challenge is in retaining and promoting women, and not in attracting women to the profession. Data from the 2019 SRA survey on diversity and inclusion shows that while females make up 49% of all lawyers in law firms, the percentage decreases to 34% at partner level and even more so within larger firms (50+ partners) at just 29%. These numbers have not significantly improved since the previous surveys.

To sign or not to sign?

When the Pledge was first launched, we first took time to review the eight obligations and the wider requirements. Across the firm, we recognised the public commitment we were making by being a signatory. We were putting ourselves in the spotlight for scrutiny and holding ourselves accountable for delivering further change. It was agreed at executive level and by our international leadership team. The Pledge was signed by Lee Ranson, our CEO.

By signing up to the Pledge we were saying that we were committed to actively working to achieve progress on the eight elements, not that we had achieved all of them. The early steps included:

  • critically assessing our current position against the obligations of the Pledge
  • reviewing our existing gender action plan
  • asking ourselves where we may have any gaps and what needed to improve

What became clear was that whilst some of the obligations were either already fully or partially being progressed, the Pledge would stretch us too. For example, we have a named senior leader with responsibility for gender diversity and inclusion, we have gender targets at partner level (30% female partners by 2021), in the last 12 months we’ve delivered mandatory anti-bullying and harassment training for everyone and we’re currently delivering updated inclusive leadership training for all of our partners. There is more we can do to look at the different outcomes for women at all levels of the organisation.

COVID-19 – accelerator or brake?

The current wild-card influencing our ability to deliver against the Pledge’s long-term goal of gender equality in the profession is COVID-19. At this moment we’re unclear whether its overall impact will be as an accelerator or brake to progress.

On the positive side, the remote/home working agenda – a topic often seen as a barrier to female progression – has moved forward by possibly a decade in just a matter of weeks. Challenges around technology and attitudes to home working have been overcome, everyone has done it, and seen just how successful it can be. It has forced the profession to adapt and change in a way not seen before. As we move into the ‘new normal’ it’s about how we seize the positives and integrate them into everything we do, for the benefit of all.

There have also been potentially negative effects for gender progression. Firstly, there is the potential for organisations to have ‘taken their eye off the ball’ with, for example, the requirement for gender pay gap reporting being suspended in 2020 amid COVID-19. Like a number of other law firms, we did publish our report as we’re committed to the transparency it provides and the progress it drives. We also voluntarily for the first time reported our ethnicity pay gap, supporting our UK BAME partner target.

Secondly, research reported in the Law Society Gazette indicates that many female lawyers are finding lockdown particularly exhausting because of childcare responsibilities. As lockdown is easing and nurseries and schools begin to reopen, we’ll have a better understanding of the impact from this pandemic.

Achieving gender equality in the law

When signing up to the Pledge we wanted to ensure that our actions were embedded across the firm and across the full range of our activities. We chose not to create a separate plan for the Pledge. We already had a gender action plan which we’re continually reviewing, and we used the Pledge to make the existing plan more ambitious and focused on the Pledge’s obligations and reporting deadlines.

For example, when we next review our gender target we’ll be focussing on the female partner percentage and target date, and also what targets are required at other levels.

Our aim is to incorporate the Pledge into everything we’re doing on diversity and inclusion, rather than the Pledge being a stand-alone activity – it will inform our approach on other diversity and inclusion actions too.

Our action plan includes:

  • reviewing our processes around the allocation of client/partner relationships, looking at how we allocate senior roles across the business that fall outside of elected roles, as well as reviewing our lateral hiring process at senior level in the UK and other regions around the world
  • mentoring and reverse mentoring initiatives, both internally and in conjunction with clients and other external bodies
  • a systematic review of talent management and our promotions pipeline, including the introduction of a talent dashboard to monitor the pipeline and understand where and why people may drop out along the way
  • Respect at Work mandatory training for all our people which addresses the issue of harassment, bullying and sexual harassment and states our zero-tolerance approach
  • a project to ensure gender neutral language across all the firm’s activities
  • monitoring for any bias across the annual cycle of pay reviews, bonuses, and promotions
  • sessions to ‘debunk the myths of partnership’

Our vision of the future

Our vision for the future is clear – an ongoing and enduring commitment to gender equality, as part of our wider commitment to a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture. The Pledge is an integral part of this as it provides a transparent approach, sharing best practice and encouraging collaboration across the sector, and with our clients, the Law Society and other professional organisations, and dedicated groups such as the General Counsel D&I Forum.

The Law Society review process, focused on capturing the experience of being a signatory, has been delayed due to COVID-19 but will restart soon and provide a welcome opportunity for us to further hone our actions, make improvements and share our challenges and progress.

While individual firms working to deliver the Pledge will make a difference, it’s the collective power of organisations across the profession which has the potential for a seismic shift. I would encourage organisations who have not already done so, to sign up. While it may represent a stretch for many, and rightly so, it’s the change that the profession needs to see.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Sign up to the Women in Law Pledge launched in partnership with the Bar Council of England and Wales and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), or alternatively, email our diversity and inclusion team with any questions.

The First 100 Years project has created an amazing archive of video and podcasts for the future.

Explore our Women Lawyers Division

Join our Women Lawyers Division LinkedIn group

Read about the work we’re doing to promote diversity and inclusion and to improve the experience of black and ethnic minority members in the solicitor profession.

There are regional groups in many local law Societies and the Association of Women Solicitors in London and Manchester.

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