EQUALITY: THE HUNDRED-YEAR JOURNEY
Gender equality was brought to the fore once again last month with the Law Society launching its Women In Law Pledge at its International Symposium in London
This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time when it became law on 23 December 1919. A century on from that momentous step towards equality, women continue to fight for equal representation across all industries. The BBC announced women (just three) among its top earners for the first time in this year’s pay list, demonstrating that the issue is not confined to the law. However, the legal profession – despite showing such early promise – still lags behind in terms of gender equality. According to figures from The Lawyer Top 200, just 24 per cent of partners in the UK’s top law firms are women, despite the fact they represent 60 per cent of entrants to the legal profession since 1990. It’s a similar story at the Bar, where Bar Council figures reveal that women have represented approximately half of those entering pupillage for the past ten years, yet a mere 38 per cent of barristers are women and they only account for 16 per cent of queen’s counsel. In her final public appearance as Law Society president, Christina Blacklaws unveiled the Women In Law Pledge at the Society’s international symposium on gender equality on 20 June, just prior to handing the baton to Simon Davis on 5 July.
The pledge invites firms to commit to actions that support gender equality. They include appointing a member of the senior leadership team to be accountable for gender diversity and inclusion, as well as setting specific gender targets. Committing to tackling sex discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment is also part of the pledge as well as ensuring pay, reward and recognition of the senior leadership team is linked to the firm’s performance against equality targets. Blacklaws bills the scheme as a way for “legal organisations across the country [to] hold themselves accountable for gender equality in their workforce and commit to creating a more diverse profession”. “I started this programme the day that I was elected deputy vice president, so it’s more than three years ago and we have achieved a lot”, she added in her closing remarks on day two of the Symposium on 21 June. “However, that is not enough because as we know from everything we’ve learnt from the last day and a half, there is so much more that needs to be done. But equally what we have also learnt is how important men are to these solutions, to getting to a point where we actually can achieve gender equality in our profession.”
One such man is Davis, her successor. He rejected the idea that Blacklaws would be “passing the baton” as far as diversity and inclusion goes. Rather, he said he would continue the work they had been doing together. He pledged that his firm, Clifford Chance, would be one of the first to sign the pledge. The firm currently ranks fairly low among the top 200 when it comes to senior-level equality, with women accounting for just 21 per cent of its partnership. Davis urged firms to avoid the usual ‘us and them’ pitfalls that can arise in equality debates. “This must not be about ‘you’ve had your turn now it’s ours’, this must be about conversations among friends. About treating each other with dignity and respect, rather than with mistrust”, he told those gathered for the Symposium at the Hilton Bankside in London’s Suffolk Street last month.
TACKLING THE GATEKEEPERS
However, Dowshan Humzah, director and chair of Board Apprentice Global, alluded to an unavoidable ‘us and them’ dynamic in many workplaces, as he put it: the “gatekeepers” and the “gatecrashers”. “It’s the gatekeepers that prevent us – most of us here, the gatecrashers – from progressing. It’s like going to a club, you’ve got a person with a clipboard not letting you in because you’re not on the guestlist.” Describing the pace of change in the legal profession as “glacial”, Humzah urged law firm leaders to recognise that equality and diversity is “a business issue” and “an issue for our generation”. “We’re a hundred years on from the first female lawyer, we’re a hundred years on from the first woman being elected to parliament but yet we’re still talking”, he said. “Take some responsibility.
All of us have a role to play here, as individuals, as members of the electorate in a democracy, as business leaders, or partners or directors or trainees, so we all have a role to play.” Speaking on the male champions for change panel, his sentiments were echoed by law firm partners, however, Clearly Gottlieb’s Raj Panasar admitted that firms were still failing to take the issue seriously enough in practice. “We’re very good at talking a great game and the executive will get in a room and say all the right things; but the pace of change is glacial and until it actually percolates into the everyday decisions that men are making in the room, helping the juniors around them to develop, it’s really not going to change in the way that it needs to”, he argued. “It’s not a high enough active priority in our industry.”
While most firms will be aware that the appetite to work in fairer and more compassionate workplaces has grown with the millennial and generation workforce, International Bar Association (IBA) legal advisor Kieran Pender said it was a mistake to assume that modern sensibilities would automatically change the existing culture. “A risk we face is assuming that this change is inevitable because this generation is different and enlightened and that it will push for this change and achieve this change”, he said. He pointed to the fight for marriage equality in Ireland and Australia where, in both countries, millennials were overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality but were not equipped to persuade older members of society of the reasons for their conviction. “We see the same thing in a hierarchical profession like law”, he explained. “Expecting the next generation, the younger generation, to be shouldering this burden and pushing it forward is perhaps unrealistic because to expect a young associate to go to the managing partner and say ‘this firm isn’t doing enough on bullying’, on diversity and inclusion is ludicrous.”
Quotas tend to be controversial but Humzah believes that businesses have already tried softer means of correcting the market, which have helped but not to a great enough extent. He said: “Progress has stalled so there is now actually a very serious discussion about whether we want to go to something harder to make this happen, because the talent is out there for women on boards, the opportunity is not. We, the gatekeepers, are still denying that. There are structural barriers in place and cultural barriers in place that the gatekeepers are happy to maintain, and quotas can change that.” DLA Piper partner Jon Hayes expressed some concern that quotas can have unintended consequences but also highlighted the numerous rigid measures that law firms are already comfortable adhering to. “Law firms are rife with cultures that value what they measure. I see no harm at all in measuring things and having targets because we pursue everything because we are rewarded, and are appreciated because of what we achieve and I don’t see why this wouldn’t be just another target by which we set our strategy and our performance”, he argued. Humzah added: “The reality is that I don’t want people to be blind to people’s gender, I don’t want people to be blind to people’s ethnicity or social background.
The reality is that it is those different backgrounds, those different qualities, that create in their heads that different way of thinking about things and that’s actually what we’re after.” Also controversial are the numerous mentoring programmes that can be seen as a means of ‘fixing’ women, rather than tackling the underlying issues that cause inequality head on. However, Panasar believes a level of coaching for women is helpful. “When the limelight is taken by the man in the room, he is getting all the practice and pushing out women”, he explained. “So I think a lot of what we need to do is not only to teach people how to project themselves in a room, how to have presence, take a risk and how to use the language so it’s not a fatal decision… but also to temper the tendencies of those domineering men in the room.”
The keynote speaker of the day, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, argued the key to achieving greater equality in law is improving leadership culture. “Periods of change need good leaders and we are going through a period of incredible change”, she said, pointing to the swathes of changes that are already being ushered in via globalisation and new technology. “It used to be that we talked about transactional leadership. And transactional leadership was compared with transformative leadership”, she said. “Transactional leadership was the oldfashioned thing of command and control, where you used sticks and carrots, where you threatened, you said we’ll come after you – you’re going to be sacked – or you’d shout. But you’ll get a great bonus if you deliver to the level that we’re expecting but you, you’re a loser, you go.” This style of leadership, she said, is “outmoded”, arguing that transformational leadership – involving skills more associated with feminine attributes – is what is getting results in the modern world, with the modern workforce. “It involves listening, it involves team building, it involves flatter structures, it involves having good antennae for how people are feeling about the direction of travel”, she said. “When people are feeling disempowered, actually sitting down and spending time with them. It’s about dealing with the whole person and it’s about trusting people to act autonomously within agreed parameters but to expect accountability. It is about giving people the space in which they can do what they might be able to do best, but creating parameters for them and praising what people do well. So good leadership is transformative, and you have to bring people with you.”
Acknowledging that women are not yet traditionally associated with leadership, Kennedy pointed to various stages in history where they had demonstrated it and been overlooked by virtue of the world’s patriarchal perspective. “In pursuing the vote, in pursuing changes in women’s lives – the great shifts in law that took place around property rights and so on. It was women who were leading many of those campaigns and women that were at the forefront, though never acclaimed, of the antislavery movement, or played important roles in South Africa in ending apartheid, in the civil rights movement in the United States and so on.
Not always getting recognition.” As the director of the human rights institute within the IBA, Kennedy said she sees how cultures that have been to the detriment of women are now being challenged on a daily basis, and she urged women who feel pressure to assimilate into toxically masculine cultures to resist. “We know that there are plenty of women that basically decide to play the game that is expected of us, to basically assimilate the culture that currently exists and make no complaint about bullying or sexual harassment. I’m tired of hearing older women say ‘oh for heaven’s sake get a life, we had to deal with that ourselves when we were young. We had to slap away men that were abusive, we had to shout them down’. And all I’m saying to you is that’s not good enough.
Young women, young men coming into the legal profession have to expect something different and it is about respect.” She concluded that to take equality forward, good leaders should establish a sense of urgency around change, and to excite people and bring them on board. She urged leaders to “form a powerful guiding coalition”, to assist team buy-in and to communicate the vision clearly and lead by example. She advocated for empowerment and autonomy among teams, so that individuals had the space to do their best work within clear parameters, and for leaders to give praise when it was due. In closing she echoed the sentiments of every speaker and panellist throughout the day: “It’s not just a project for women, it’s a project for men and women together. It’s a project for all of us.”