Guest post by Karen Holden, chief executive of A City Law Firm
Many readers will know that we recently marked the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to practise as solicitors and barristers in England and Wales for the first time.
The most recent figures show that women now make up a majority of practising solicitors, but I believe there is still a long way to go to establish the level of women in senior roles in law firms.
A major step is changing preconceptions that clients may have of what a top lawyer looks like. I handle a lot of work for international clients and senior male businessmen. However, I have been asked countless times if “The owner of the business can attend”, had officials request that “They send a man next time” and even specifically been asked by clients that “Only a man represent me”.
A large part of the issue is, of course, women wanting to start families. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010, women shouldn’t feel anxious that motherhood could hinder their chances of promotion into senior roles.
But the reality is I had to leave my high-profile job at an international law firm due to the negative reception I received when considering starting my own family.
This was in fact, the reason I set up A City Law Firm. I never wanted anyone to feel this could potentially jeopardise their career progression, so it was crucial that I created an environment where employees development would not be affected by becoming a parent.
I believe flexible working can also help to tackle this problem. This is not offered by all law firms and is something we need to push for further in the UK generally and also within the legal profession to ensure more women seek higher roles, knowing they can still have families if they choose.
Men should also be encouraged to explore flexible working patterns and arrangements so childcare is not left for women to handle alone. If we are to establish equality, this should be a shared role as is the case in many Scandinavian countries.
In addition, I strongly encourage more women to speak at events and stand out. We need to be at the forefront, inspiring other women and reiterating the image of what a top lawyer looks like. I’m often the only female panelist to talk at investment events, so it is clear to me that visibility is key and there currently is not enough of it.
Recently I was awarded the Freedom of the City, yet at Guild of Freeman events they assume it is my husband who is the Freeman and approach him to enter into conversation. It is apparent that women are a rarity in this scene and a female judge (a Freeman of over 40 years) whom I recently met observed how very few women were permitted at the events. Although she was pleased to see it changing, progression is still far too slow. I agreed that, for change to occur more rapidly, women need to be disruptive and assertive in the City.
Although over the last 100 years women have made huge steps towards equality, there is still a long way to go. I believe that if the above steps are implemented within the legal landscape, it will significantly reduce the seniority disparity between the sexes within the workplace.