Women lawyers returning to work after maternity leave face “not so much a glass ceiling as a sticky floor” and should recognise that a perfect work-life balance is impossible, a conference was told last week.
A panel of high-powered barristers and solicitors – among them QCs, partners in large City law firms and judges – spoke candidly about their careers at the launch event for Cambridge Women in Law, an event coinciding with the centenary of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, when women were finally allowed to practise law.
But there was a consensus that women should be ambitious and unapologetic about the demands they faced relative to male colleagues.
Jessica Gladstone, a partner at Clifford Chance, said that returning after giving birth meant facing “the cruel reality that the world has moved on without you and you were dispensable, effectively”.
She continued: “Trying to find your voice again and your role again… is a particularly challenging time. That perfection idea has to be eliminated first and foremost.”
She warned that ‘imposter syndrome’ – the sense that you do not deserve to be where you are – “creeps in with a vengeance and tells you you’re just not good enough… [that] you’re letting everybody down”.
“In a way you’re your own worst enemy.”
Amanda Pinto QC, the vice-chair of the Bar Council, agreed and said she almost left the Bar after her first child when her practice “plummeted” after she returned to work.
“I was finding it quite hard with a young baby. Then my practice improved and I stayed. The problem was work allocation, and everyone else’s assumptions that I wasn’t going to stay.”
Human rights barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, the mother of three children, said: “It’s not so much a glass ceiling as a sticky floor.”
She pointed out that, as a barrister in chambers, she was self-employed and had no HR department to assist.
She recounted that when she was carrying her first child, she lost a brief in a very big case because the solicitor was told “she’s pregnant and she’s very tired”. By the time she learned of it, the brief had gone elsewhere.
Sara Luder, partner and head of tax at Slaughter and May, said: “I think lawyers tend to be perfectionists and control freaks, and these two things will not give you a work-life balance…
“You have to give up on the perfectionism.”
Addressing ‘bumps’ in her career, Elaine Penrose, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells, regretted that she had been forced to “play like a man” in her early career.
She found it “incredibly irritating” that she had had to “police my enthusiasm”, while also being under pressure to “display more gravitas”, when actually “doing a good job and giving good service to clients” should be sufficient.
She went on: “The idea of gravitas is a male construct… My fellow male trainees and junior associates who were six foot tall with a deep voice – and if they look young, they will grow a beard – had gravitas.”
Since becoming a partner, she had made a point of “being myself”. She urged: “Actually having a diverse range of approaches in delivering advice is a good thing.”
Priya Lele, legal process design lead (UK, US & EMEA) at Herbert Smith Freehills, said she had “flipped” the idea that she was an outsider into an asset, explaining: “When I started as a solicitor in the City, I would often find myself in a room full of men who look and sound the same… I look different, sound different, am from a different culture… I found it hard sometimes to find my voice…
“Over the years I actually embraced my difference and turned it into my USP.”
Asked to give young women entering the profession advice, the panel highlighted that it could be very rewarding.
Ms Pinto said: “It’s a fantastic career. You should really stick at it and believe that you can get to where you want to get to.”
Ms Lele said: “Be as ambitious, if not more, as your male colleagues. Don’t let anything limit you.”
Shauna Gillan, barrister and part-time immigration judge, said women should aim high and be “over-confident”.
She recommended: “Find yourself a mentor, someone who is 10 years ahead of you in the profession. Cold call them out of the blue and ask if they’d go for coffee…
“Pull yourself up the ladder and then look down the ladder [and help someone else].”
Last week, a report from the Association of Women Barristers highlighted how inappropriate behaviour by male barristers  in robing rooms and at Bar messes still abounds.