Sexist comments “remain rife” in legal profession

Denis-Smith: Women are still being held back

Some 58% of women in the legal profession say they or women they work with have received inappropriate comments from male colleagues relating to their gender, new research has found.

Almost half (46%) reported that either they or one of their colleagues had not complained about discrimination for fear of the impact on their careers.

In line with similar research in recent years, the survey exploring the reality of life for women working in the legal profession, conducted by the First 100 Years project, found there were still considerable barriers to progression and equality.

The survey of 741 solicitors, barristers and other women working in the legal profession showed that a mere 2% thought there was “true equality” in the legal profession, with 80% predicting it would take 20 years or more to achieve equality. A third considered that, at the current rate of progress, it would take 100 years.

“Women in my workplace are routinely discriminated against, harassed and then forced into silence if they complain,” said one law firm associate.

“Diversity and ‘women’s initiatives’ are PR orientated – my firm is a supposed leader in these areas on paper, but it is a completely different story in practice.”

A partner responded: “I was promoted to partner in an all-male partnership. I felt I had to constantly justify my position, as some within the partnership hinted that I was only offered the role because they needed to have a female partner.”

One barrister said: “When I announced my second pregnancy, a senior male said to me ‘Goodness, you didn’t keep your legs shut for long’.”

A law firm trainee reported that “those at the top of my firm are aware of some of the sexual harassers and do nothing to stop or address them”.

A majority (52%) agreed that it was still easier for men in their organisations to achieve a promotion than it is for women, while less than half felt women were fairly represented in the senior management of their organisation.

“Gender discrimination is rife,” explained one partner. “The “boys’ network” remains in full force, excluding women from networking opportunities and bullying them so that they feel inadequate and incapable.”

“Partnership structures in law firms breed the boys’ club mentality,” said one associate, “Earlier in my career I wanted to prove myself equal, better even, than the men. Now I look a few years ahead to partnership and realise I don’t want to be in a boys’ club even if they invite me in.”

Whilst 54% said they received encouragement from senior women in the workplace, a failure of employers to accommodate the realities of family life continues to hold women back: 28% of respondents said they have considered leaving their job due to a lack of flexible working.

The majority (60%) believed that working part-time would impact on their career prospects, while 39% said their working hours were not compatible with family life.

“My experience is that part-time female lawyers trying to juggle work with family life are consistently not recognised for loyalty, flexibility and hard work,” said one partner. “We are overlooked for promotion as we often don’t have the time for self-promotion and are penalised for a perceived lack of presence.”

A barrister observed: “As a single parent, working at the Bar is an impossible hurdle. I find it extremely upsetting and disappointing – it has become a profession that only the independently wealthy or those with a rich spouse can stay in after having children.”

An associate told researchers that she was leaving the profession after 15 years due to the inflexibility of the firms she has worked for: “Once you go part-time, you don’t have time to market yourself, manage and fee-earn at your previous rate. It is impossible to move up the ladder.”

However, there were also positive stories of firms and chambers making genuinely positive moves, such as the partner who recounted how her large national firm had supported her through the route to partnership whilst working part-time, and encouraging her to continue to do so.

A solicitor responded: “The partners in my firm have been very supportive of me. I was always told that it wasn’t possible to do this job part-time but here I am working three days a week, with flexible, agile working and term-time only, so that I can spend quality time with my three young children.”

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years, said: “Many organisations in the legal world are succeeding in creating an acceptable working environment, in which discrimination and harassment are not tolerated and family friendly working patterns are at least a possibility.

“This is proof that it can be done, yet it is clear that 100 years after women were first permitted to practise, they are still being held back. In some cases, they are being treated unlawfully by their employers and many are leaving a profession that they feel does not work for them.”

Ms Denis-Smith said more women at the top was needed to speed up progress, and reiterated her call from a year ago for quotas to move this along: “Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far. I believe change sometimes needs to be forced.

“I would like to see all parts of the legal profession coming together to work on this diversity problem. We need the legal regulators along with the Bar Council, Law Society and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives to form a profession-wide taskforce to come up with solutions that tackle it head on.”

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