Women and people from ethnic minorities have to employ special strategies to overcome institutional discrimination when working in large law firms, the British Sociological Association’s annual conference will hear today.
Dr Jennifer Tomlinson and Professor Daniel Muzio, of Leeds and Manchester universities respectively, will explain how these strategies range from assimilation through to withdrawal.
They come in response to the lawyers grappling with and overcoming “biased opportunity structures within the profession”, according to Dr Tomlinson. For some this had included sexual advances from seniors, and racist remarks, she said.
Their address to the conference in Leeds will draw on interviews carried out as part of Legal Services Board-funded research into diversity in the legal profession in 2010.
Dr Tomlinson said that there was “extensive evidence that while overtly discriminatory practices have largely been dismantled, the top echelons of the legal profession remain not only dominated by white, upper-middle class men, but as sites of subtle institutional discrimination”.
She explained that among the strategies some women and ethnic minority lawyers pursue in response is to assimilate into the “dominant, white, masculine” culture, by “taking up the hobbies, customs and dress of the dominant work group” or by compromising on their values and their aspirations for family life.
“For Asian women, the most commonly mentioned issue concerned clothing, with many making conscious decision to wear Western rather than traditional Asian dress at work, so as not to look ‘too ethnic’.
“For our white female respondents, assimilation involved minimising the visibility and impact of family life, by concealing family pictures in their offices, returning to work quickly after maternity and generally subscribing to stereotypically masculine career trajectories, or ‘managing like a man’.”
Other lawyers adopt another strategy – ‘playing the game’ – in order to get on, said Dr Tomlinson, “volunteering to sit on committees and enthusiastically pursuing networking opportunities within their employer or in the wider profession. This is crucial since in the informal and personal world of the legal profession, decisions are often based on impression management, fitting in with important clients and winning personal favour with leading partners.”
Other strategies adopted include finding better working conditions by moving to a new area, sector or specialism, or trying to reform the system, such as changing and making more transparent partnership promotion criteria.