Over the summer, we saw city firms hit the headlines offering a raft of eye-catching perks and ‘landmark’ family friendly policies.

Ashurst introduced a new parental leave policy, which will see 26 weeks of fully paid leave offered to staff members, irrespective of gender. Legal staff will also have a three-month reduction in chargeable hours targets once they return to work.

The likes of Clifford Chance and Cooley have followed the lead of investment banks, such as Goldman Sachs, by introducing staff fertility benefits, including egg freezing and IVF.

These are positive developments – and recognition of the needs of employees that go beyond their work life – but can distract from the hard work of tackling the more systemic changes required to achieve equality for women in law.

The war for talent

Attractive perks have long been a mainstay of city firms, fighting for the best junior lawyers – with benefits such as gyms, dry-cleaning, hairdressers, takeaway budgets and concierge services. These extras both reflect the need to accommodate the long hours worked by employees, but also the fact that it is becoming harder to attract and keep experienced associates with high salaries alone.

Many of us re-evaluated our lives during the pandemic – and for some, the lure of a hefty pay packet is no longer enough – firms continue to lose those who are three to five years PQE, with women more likely to make a move, either in-house, or out of the law altogether.

Headline-grabbing measures such as IVF may attract some – and will be helpful to a minority of employees, but ultimately the offer will be taken up by few people, and cost firms relatively little. The more challenging work of changing attitudes and structures, to remove barriers for women and support parents in maintaining and flexing professional life, can be far harder to implement.

Flexibility and leadership

Covid-19 has heralded a sea change in the attitude to home working and flexible hours. The government has announced proposals to allow employees to request flexible working from day one and the majority of law firms appear to be implementing hybrid working policies that will endure beyond the pandemic.

Firms making these changes will need to show leadership and consistency in their flexible working policies. It should not be left up to individual managers and partners as to how much time their teams spend in the office – there will always be some who object.

I am already hearing about more ‘traditional’ partners issuing ultimatums to their teams, saying they need to be in the office five days a week. Real progress will require a change in the culture of organisations that must be driven from the top.

The need for firms to look again at billable hour targets is not going away. It is all very well to offer flexibility and remote working – but if lawyers are still expected to hit sky high targets for hours worked, then apart from cutting out a commute, those looking for a better balance between work and family life are unlikely to see huge benefits. We need our workplaces to focus on outputs, rather than time spent at a desk.

Parental leave

The move towards parental policies that benefit both men and women are also a positive step. There is potential to shift long held norms about the parenting roles of men and women, provided men feel able to take up the opportunity without fearing the impact taking a lengthy amount of time off will have on their career. Some, like women before them, will worry that they will be seen as less committed, or fear they may be sidelined in their absence.

The current ‘use it or lose it’ model of parental leave focuses help on the first year of a child’s life – but doesn’t reflect the ongoing needs of families as children grow up. I would like to see policies that allow leave to be taken at different periods in a child’s life, to ameliorate some of the ongoing childcare responsibilities that typically see women disadvantaged in the workplace, and less able to progress in their careers.

Harassment at work

A lack of flexibility is not the only barrier to equality for women. Harassment and discrimination are still an issue in the workplace. The survey of women in law we carried out in 2019 found that 58 per cent said that either they personally, or women they had worked with, had experienced inappropriate comments from male colleagues relating to their gender. Almost half said that either they or one of their colleagues had not complained about discrimination for fear it would impact on their career.

Two years on, and firms are doing more to tackle the issue, but I still hear of women experiencing harassment – and, although there is more awareness, this isn’t always leading to changing attitudes. Some women are even finding that a fear amongst male colleagues of being accused of wrongdoing is resulting in women simply being left out of social events altogether. Perhaps given so many of us are still working remotely, it is easier to sideline women when it comes to events outside work, cutting them out of the networking and relationship building that helps further careers.

Changing career paths

We need to reset the culture of our workplaces and look at the career paths we offer to take into account shifting priorities throughout our lives. We need to challenge the convention that a career can only follow one pattern - a linear path from training to leadership that takes place between the ages of 21 and 50.

Too often people with a previous track record of achievement, followed by a career break or time spent in a part-time or more junior position, are viewed as less desirable candidates for senior roles. That should not be the case – those people still have the same potential, the same qualities, and may even have seen time spent out of the workplace enhance some of those skills.

We need to look at how we can we better accommodate periods of part time working or career breaks to ensure those with caring responsibilities continue to have sustainable and rewarding careers over the long term.

Transparency

If they are really serious about improving diversity, legal businesses need to be transparent, reporting on their gender pay gap and working to close it, making routes to promotion clear so that all employees understand what they need to do to progress.

Firms should be setting targets based on detailed diversity data that apply at every level, from graduate recruitment, through to filling positions on senior management teams. Clients want to see this too – and many in-house counsel now insist the firms they work with demonstrate progress in this regard.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must redouble our efforts. We can’t just rely on family friendly policies and headline grabbing perks. The hard work needs to go into culture change, more transparency, setting diversity targets – and the integration of permanent flexible and remote working and efforts that put women on an equal footing with men.

Dana Denis-Smith is the founder of The Next 100 Years: next100years.org.uk

 

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