IWD: Women lawyers call for “radical change” to aid progression

Denis-Smith: Creativity and insight

Radical changes to flexible working arrangements, along with mentoring and sponsorship programmes, and improvements to parental leave have topped the list of reforms that champions of gender equality say are needed to bring about meaningful change in the legal profession.

Women shortlisted for the most recent Inspirational Women in Law Awards run by The First 100 Years project were asked: ‘What is the single thing that would make a real and positive difference in achieving equality for women within the profession?’

The results, published to coincide with International Women’s Day, showed a wide range of responses, including compulsory paternity leave, ditching the billable hour, a diversity accreditation scheme and a four-day full-time working week for all – something that has been in the news of late due to a successful experiment in New Zealand.

The largest number of applicants (24%) recommended changes to working practices to better reflect women’s lives. Suggestions focused on the normalisation of part-time working or shorter working hours for both men and women.

As well as ensuring flexible working was an option for legal professionals, there was an emphasis on cultural change so that those working fewer hours were no longer considered unsuitable for senior positions or somehow lacking in ambition.

Applicants also felt that the so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ and a lack of confidence in their own abilities were holding women back.

The responses suggested formal systems of mentoring or one-to-one sponsorship – mentors could encourage women to apply for promotions and act as advocates able to highlight their skills to management.

Ideas included a five-year programme aimed at junior women barristers of 10 years call, providing mentoring and training to encourage future QC applications.

Changes to maternity and paternity leave were also proposed by applicants, including mandatory maternity pay for barristers and greater support on their return to work and compulsory paternity leave for male staff, with a view to promoting greater balance between parental responsibility across the sexes.

The problem of unconscious bias present in the senior ranks of legal organisations and inherent in their systems and structures was also raised.

Solutions to this centred around education, including making a specific module on discrimination and inequality in the legal profession a compulsory part of all law degrees.

Other suggestions included non-discriminatory work allocation for barristers, public speaking lessons for schoolgirls, compulsory gender equality training, mandatory gender pay gap reporting for all law firms and the introduction of the equal merit provision for recruitment and promotion to ensure firms appoint a woman where a male and female candidate both have the same level of experience and skill.

A fifth of applicants proposed specific regulatory or legislative changes, suggesting sufficient change will not come from voluntary actions alone.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years, said: “The slow speed of progress towards equality is a complex issue and needs to be tackled on a number of fronts.

“The breadth of ideas we received from our award entrants demonstrates a creativity and insight that is often lacking from the legal profession’s attempts to remove barriers to women’s progress.

“There are some radical ideas here which demonstrate that we clearly need a major rethink of our workplaces.

“Today’s structures fail to accommodate the reality of women’s lives and more formal mechanisms must to be put in place to give women the support and chances they need to reach the top of the legal profession.”

Ms Denis-Smith recently called for quotas on the number of female equity partners and managers at law firms.

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