We must do more to prevent women being 'lost to the law'
Linden Thomas, President of Birmingham Law Society, discusses three new initiatives to address gender inequality at the most senior levels of the law.
In 2019, 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force and enabled women to practise law, the legal world is a promising place for women: we have a female President of the Supreme Court, we have until very recently had a female president of the Law Society of England and Wales, and more than half of pupil barristers and those admitted as solicitors in the last year were women.
Yet women in leadership positions in the law remain in the minority: nationwide, women account for only 29.3% of partners in private practice. There are plenty of women entering our profession, but they are not progressing in tandem with their male counterparts. Not even close.
'Lost to the law'
One of the reasons for fewer women at partnership level or equivalent, is that a number leave legal practice somewhere around the mid-point of their careers, before realising their full professional potential – they are 'lost to the law'. When this happens, our sector lose considerable knowledge and experience and we also lose valuable role models and potential sources of support for younger women.
I have experienced first-hand the value of female mentors and role models: I have been fortunate to have known a number of women in senior positions to whom I have looked for advice, support and inspiration as I have progressed in my own career.
But this is not the case for all women entering careers in law today. With the majority of boards and senior management teams still male-dominated, workplace policies, practices and cultures can inadvertently favour men, often making it difficult for women to sustain their careers beyond a certain point.
However hard we try to promote equality at the point of entry, we cannot achieve a representative gender balance at all levels of the legal profession without first addressing the unusually high rate of attrition of its female members.
At Birmingham Law Society, we believe that a multi-faceted approach is required. To this end, and to mark the centenary of women first being allowed to practise law, we are launching three new initiatives: to support women in the early stages of their legal careers, to celebrate those who inspire and challenge others, and to formally explore the factors contributing to senior-level gender inequality.
Women supporting women
In line with recommendations made in the 2018 'Women in Leadership in Law' report published by the Law Society, which calls for more ideas that involve 'women supporting women', we are introducing a new peer-to-peer, inter-organisational mentoring scheme for our members. There are some conversations that can be difficult to have with even the most supportive colleagues from within one's own organisation, and with such a large and diverse membership Birmingham Law Society is uniquely placed to provide access to impartial mentors from a broad range of practices.
Mentors and mentees are currently being recruited for the scheme, which is due to launch in the autumn. To assess impact, at the end of the year participants will be asked to reflect on their experience – whether they feel the scheme helped them (and in what ways), and whether they would recommend it to others.
The Law Society report also highlights the importance of role modelling to demonstrate support of other women. It is this idea that forms the basis for our new social media campaign, #ThankYou100. Featuring videos of our female members expressing thanks to their role models, this campaign, which is running across Twitter and LinkedIn, is designed to recognise and celebrate those who have made a difference to women at all stages of their legal careers.
Research informing policy
Alongside this work to promote visibility and increase support for women practising law, we are also collaborating with academics from the University of Birmingham Law School on a new research project called 'Lost to the Law'. The project explores the factors that cause women to leave legal careers, what they go on to do and what, if anything, might have led to them choosing to stay. It will be running throughout 2019 and is due to publish its findings in the new year.
The knowledge garnered as a result of this kind of rigorous and independent academic research has the potential to be a tool for real change, enabling employers to make informed decisions about the policies and practices they can implement to support and enable women to remain in the profession.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be leading a progressive organisation such as Birmingham Law Society, which, fittingly in this milestone anniversary year, is for the first time in its 200-year history being led by an all-female team of office holders. It is my hope that together, the initiatives that we have put in place will go some way towards reducing the rate of attrition of female legal professionals in the West Midlands and beyond, and in doing so will help to make the next 100 years even more fair and progressive than the last.
If you, or any women you know, have left the legal profession and would like to know more about participating in the Lost to the Law research project, please contact the researchers at the University of Birmingham at email@example.com
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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