As the end of 2017 approaches, I have been reflecting on the number of significant initiatives the Law Society of England and Wales has launched this year to promote the role of women in the law and support them throughout their career.
In 2017 the Law Society offered mentoring, networking events and a returners course supporting many women and men in their journey to achieve their full potential. This year we have also launched our Sisters in Law project to specifically support and represent BAME women in the profession (as women of colour are the most under-represented group in the corporate pipeline—behind white men, men of colour and white women). This year we have also supported the launch of the First 100 Years project to highlight the achievements of women in law, and to open the discussion as to why there are so few women at the top of the legal profession.
Women in leadership in the law will indeed be a central theme of my presidential year when I become president of the Law Society of England and Wales in July 2018.
2017 has been a very significant year for women lawyers as we have now become the majority (50.2%) of practising solicitors in England and Wales. Yet, of the 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% of partners are women and this is clearly an issue that needs to be tackled. I hope and believe that my women in leadership programme will significantly contribute to this.
Women’s skills and abilities continue to be underused in the profession. Women aged between 36-40 and older, are leaving the profession, often at the point when they have the skills and experience to become partners in private practice. Firms are losing a significant part of their talent pool. This is a serious business issue.
At the core of all of this is a significant cultural shift that needs to happen within the legal sector to achieve real equality. Our research shows that work-life balance is a problem and still too many women fear asking their employers for flexible working arrangements as this request could be viewed as a lack of commitment to their careers. This puts women under pressure and many vote with their feet by leaving the sector, taking with them their knowledge, experience and expertise.
Interestingly, a greater percentage of women decide to work in-house (56% compared to 48% in private practice), where perhaps more employers have recognised the benefit of agile working policies as a way of attracting and retaining the best employees. In-house solicitors account for 22% of the profession, which we predict will rise to 35% by 2020.
This problem is exacerbated by two additional issues that are often identified as key causes of women leaving the profession: 1) difficulty to balance work and specific caring responsibilities; and 2) difficulty returning into the legal profession after a career break.
Unfortunately, we know that we are still far from equal and fair treatment, as the gender pay gap data clearly shows.
While we welcome the introduction of new government requirements around gender pay gap reporting, which will bring more transparency, we know that meaningful change will not happen without that significant cultural shift I referred to above, which must be rooted in a shared understanding that gender equality and parity of treatment of women and men will be beneficial for everyone. For example, evidence shows that companies with a good gender balance consistently outperform those that do not have equal representation, especially at the top. In addition, figures from the Women’s Business Council estimate that fairer treatment for women in the workplace could contribute over £150billion to GDP by 2030.
Some firms have now started to adapt in response to this problem. Many are recognising the merit of flexible working policies and using innovation to help drive equality in the legal profession. We are seeing a rise in the adoption of agile working, work allocation policies, and an outputs and outcomes focussed approach rather than the more traditional billable hours model.
These are policies that can help to improve the working environment and career prospects for everyone including women and working fathers with caring responsibilities. Equality is good for business and tackling these issues will positively affect society as a whole.
To contribute to this shift, for the first time this year the Law Society marked Equal Pay Day in the UK (10th November) by launching an online consultation to generate insights and collect personal experiences of the gender pay gap.
This piece of work has been supported by several stakeholders including the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division, Lexis Nexis and the Women’s Interest Group of the International Bar Association, and I am confident the insights we will gain will play a key part in accelerating the pace of change.
We have already received more than 2,500 responses but we need more women and men, particularly from other jurisdictions to use this as an opportunity to make their voices heard and to help us inform the changes we need to see.
I would therefore invite you all to complete this survey and share it broadly with all your networks: www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/women-in-the-law