Women in the law

by on for The Lawyer

It was interesting to hear Vince Cable’s recent announcement that he is prepared to consider legislation to enforce the Government’s target for female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. Why? Because after an initial surge, following the publication of the Davies report in 2011, the pace of change has slowed. The target is 25% by 2015.

And how are lawyers doing against that target? 9.4 per cent female equity partners across the top 100 is hardly a figure to shout from the rooftops.  Less than the current figure of 9.6 per cent women FTSE 250 board members. Not so great.

The Women’s Business Council is a body set up to advise the government on issues such as women returning to work and specifically, how to get more women into executive positions.

The Council has published a research piece: “Pipeline to Senior Management – evidence paper”.  The most commonly-cited barriers to women’s advancement were ones which don’t surprise me at all.

On the list: general norms and practices; masculine/patriarchal corporate culture; the “double burden” of work and domestic responsibilities; the “anytime anywhere” model of management and in the UK in particular, the long-hours working culture, which encourages gender division of paid work and childcare, with fathers tending to work the long hours and mothers working part-time to be able to supplement childcare arrangements.

And there is a continuing expectation that women will take prime responsibility for childcare. We haven’t quite adopted the Scandinavian model here.

Particularly relevant is the availability of flexible working, which can influence a woman’s decision as to whether or not to return to the same firm after maternity. In many law firms, there is simply no route to partnership for women who work part time. Not only that, but there does appear to be a significant differential between part-time and full-time salaries, taken on a pro-rata basis.

And in terms of advancement generally, women tend to have lower levels of confidence and expectation – 23 per cent of women compared to 35 per cent of men said that they expected to take a management or leadership role when they started work – this percentage reduces for women as they get older, no doubt as they feel the chance of a leadership role slipping away from them.

And it is extremely well-documented that women tend to apply for jobs only if they meet allof the requirements, whilst men will apply if they meet most of them and equally qualified women are less likely to apply for promotions than men. I know this not only from my own personal experience but also 25 years of working in the industry and seeing women sidelined and underpaid because it is seen as acceptable.

And the attrition rate for women in the law really is shocking. What a waste of all that time and money.

And of course we have the inimitable Lucy Scott-Moncrieff to thank for refusing to pull punches when launching the Law Society’s campaign for targets for women in senior roles earlier this year. I love her.

So now some big firms have introduced targets. I’m very interested to see how that works out. I’m not holding my breath.

At the risk of a charge of “she would say that wouldn’t she,” I’d like to suggest that perhaps some of the more traditional firms i.e. those without decent female representation in the equity, could learn a lesson or two from the boutique practices. Instead of trying to recruit in your own image, perhaps think about a little bit of diversity. Take a risk. My firm is packed full of extremely capable women – at all levels, including at the very top.

The partnership is split 50:50 between men and women. The fact that it is split 50-50 at the top is, I think, key to the fact that it is split 50-50 throughout. People often recruit in their own image. And yes, a number of our female lawyers work on a part-time basis. One is a partner. We try to find a way to make it work. We don’t look for ways not to.

And this is a story you’ll find in many a smaller firm. We start from the standpoint that we want to keep good people and will try to accommodate requests for part-time/flexible working, even if it isn’t always ideal, certainly for transactional lawyers. There are sacrifices which have to be made, on both sides and a willingness to be flexible. It’s sometimes not easy, but in most cases, it can be done.

Perhaps equality is what happens when you look at things differently; when you look to the future and not the past and when you actually realise that losing women is losing money. That’s what the Government clearly thinks and for once, I find myself in agreement with them.