The Law Society has published 39 recommendations to help legal businesses deliver equality for women in the law, amid continuing reports of discrimination and harassment.
Marking International Women’s Day, president Christina Blacklaws said the society’s research showed that “important steps are being taken to promote equality”, but much more needed to be done.
“Unconscious bias, issues with remuneration and gender pay gap, and limited flexible working have been identified as the main obstacles preventing women from progressing in their careers,” she wrote in the latest report from the society’s huge Women in Leadership in Law project, which has been a centrepiece of her time as an officeholder.
The findings are based on qualitative and quantitative research involving around 12,000 legal professionals from around the world, including a huge survey, the results of which were published on last year’s International Women’s Day.
The findings were used to host or support 225 roundtable discussions domestically and in 13 jurisdictions, and this report focused on the UK results. A further report covering the international and forthcoming men’s roundtables will be produced later this year.
The society also released figures showing that London is the area of England and Wales where the lowest proportion of partners were women. Countrywide, 62.2% of new solicitors in 2018 were women but only 30.8% of partners.
“With so many smart, talented women entering the profession, it simply does not add up that female solicitors across the country are struggling to reach senior leadership positions,” it said.
The report said there was a “narrow definition of what effective leadership looks like, which often favours characteristics that are traditionally ‘male’”, whilst feminine traits were undervalued.
“This approach can sideline individuals, both women and men, who do not exhibit these characteristics and fit into the narrow characterisation for a leader in law.
“For example, what is considered acceptable behaviour can vary depending on a person’s gender. Compartmentalising individuals based on their gender is also compounded by the language used to describe behaviour.
“For example, the words ‘confident’ or ‘bossy’ elicit very different perceptions, and these linguistic differences can have a significant impact on an individual’s career.”
The research also found that recruiting in one’s own image, or “looking more favourably on a candidate or colleagues when their behaviour, or even appearance, reflects their own” was a significant problem.
Many women reported that assumptions made about them because of their gender have damaged their careers. Conversely, there was a perception that the reverse is true for men, who were presumed to be effective and capable as a natural consequence of their gender.
“Our research showed how frequently solicitors were presumed to be the ‘tea-girl’ or notetaker by virtue of being the only woman in the room, and when women who have been in the profession for decades are mistaken for an assistant when accompanied by a junior male colleague.”
The report highlighted the importance of competency-based assessments to mitigate against some unconscious biases when assessing value and worth for remuneration and promotion, “although that is dependent on the development of a sophisticated competency framework against which a more nuanced assessment of merit can be made”.
Though clients were often cited as a “powerful and positive driver” of change for gender equality, some roundtable attendees talked about the opposite, citing instances where clients were responsible for perpetrating bias – such as clients stating they were only prepared to work with a male, or even a white, solicitor.
“Roundtable attendees shared their experiences of how, when clients do not like or agree with the advice given by their lawyer, they are far more likely to challenge it and be aggressive if such advice is given by a female lawyer; whereas they are more likely to challenge it respectfully if the advice comes from a male lawyer.”
The Law Society said that, unless active steps were taken to challenge this thinking, and sophisticated means to collect and analyse data were developed to shape decision-making, “biases will continue to be perpetuated in the legal services sector”.
It stressed the importance of leading from the top and by example, “humility and acknowledgment of bias”, raising awareness as a starting point, recruitment and selection processes, and support during work.
Part of this was introducing work allocation policies. Roundtable participants explained their frustration when allocated ‘housekeeping work’ rather than ‘glory work’, which negatively impacted on remuneration.
“For women who work reduced hours, this was particularly stark as they often felt overlooked when more interesting, and higher revenue-generating, work was allocated.
“This issue extends beyond lawyers working in firms, and in one of our roundtables a member of the judiciary shared how it is becoming obvious that women barristers are ‘simply not being given access to the lucrative work’.”
A fair distribution of work was a way to reduce the gender pay gap that 60% of participants believed existed in their organisations.
The report said that sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace was raised throughout the roundtables.
“A number of participants expressed frustration at striving to be taken seriously and not to be seen as sexually attractive, relating how their choice of clothing would be a topic of discussion if it was considered too tight, too low, too high or too short.
“Others cited their reluctance to speak up about their experiences because doing so would make their situation much more difficult.
“There was agreement from participants that the #MeToo movement had shone a light on this behaviour and helped to raise awareness of the problem, however, some attendees still felt uncomfortable in sharing their experiences.”
Ms Blacklaws added: “The determination to promote gender balance in the legal profession is also clear from our research.
“Men and women in the UK and in other jurisdictions, working in both legal firms and businesses, are showing real commitment to remove these obstacles, to promote gender balance and to ensure the legal profession is diverse and representative. We are pushing at an open door.”
The culmination of the project will be an international symposium on the power of gender equality to transform the business of law in June in London. Click here for the details.