We have all seen the statistics. Women lawyers are not reaching partnership level in UK firms in significant numbers or at a level which tallies with the proportion of women in law. It is, however, a global issue, with female lawyers in the US, Canada, and Australia all seeing similar levels of promotion of around 20 per cent. So why is this happening? Are there discriminatory factors at play? Do women simply not have partnership aspirations? What can be done to improve gender diversity at the top of law firms?
Clearly this is a very complex issue and one which we cannot hope to grapple with in a short editorial. But I do have some ideas around which we can focus.
The lack of female partners is a self-perpetuating problem because women do not have viable role models to aspire to. This discourages them from trying to get to the top.
All too often women who are partners have made sacrifices to get to the top, notably around family life. Lawyers who are mothers are often not willing to give up being a mother to rise in the ranks. And why should they? Motherhood and being a partner are not mutually exclusive, or at least they should not be. The same is not true for fathers, but then many do not take paternity leave. If they did, the stigma of taking time out for family would decline, which would be a start. Men need to take a stand too if things are going to improve for everyone.
But is it really about the motherhood penalty and having children? Many successful women lawyers eschew partnership for other reasons. The traditional culture of the solicitors’ profession is particularly unappealing and unfriendly in many ways. It is anachronistic, too.
Many firms are run in the same way as they were 30 years ago, despite radical changes in the world of work around attitudes and technology. We can all work in a completely different way, a way that is human. Too many firms plod on with the old boys’ network, club dinners, and networking on the golf course, which almost always excludes women.
What if women are just wiser and not willing to accept outdated modes of working and rewards which are cosmetic and money-driven. What is the upside to being a partner? There are the kudos of the title, but this also attracts responsibility and risk. You may have a bigger salary, but when will you get the time to spend it if you are expected more than ever to be married to the office and visible at all times?
There are so many attitudinal barriers for women at work on a daily basis. Women still suffer sexual harassment at work. They are told how to dress; heels are still a talking point.
The stigma of home and flexible working in wider business has, to a great extent, been eroded. Cloud computing, email, and mobiles all mean we can work where we want when we want. Visibility is a thing of the past. Many businesses no longer even rent office space. So why aren’t law firms getting up to speed. What if this new way of working might just be friendlier, healthier, and better all round?
All six lawyers at didlaw work flexibly. Two are mothers who run their cases around their childcare responsibilities. Two are fathers raising their children. Does the ability to live a happy life with balance undermine the ability to be a good lawyer? Of course not. It makes people happier at work and happy people are producers.
Karen Jackson is a director at didlaw