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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Everyday sexism: Changing the culture of law

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Everyday sexism: Changing the culture of law

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Jennette Newman, BLM partner and head of the firm's London office, talks to Laura Clenshaw about the leadership, not lip service, needed within firms to finally end gender inequality

Once all the rage in encouraging a proportionate number of male and female partners in firms, quotas - whether forced or voluntary - have recently been cited as an inhibitor to securing gender equality in the upper echelons at law firms. It's a strong argument: quotas for quotas' sake undermine true talent, both male and female. They can also divert attention away from the reasons why there is a lack of female senior management in the first place: an absence of flexible working in a strict, presenteeism culture; a reluctance to tackle traditionally male behaviours in the workplace; and Queen Bee syndrome, whereby women who have moved to the upper ranks guard their position fiercely, refusing entry to other women struggling to make it to the top of male-dominated offices.

Jennette Newman is head of the Lloyd's and London market sector at BLM, the defendant insurer firm. A first generation university goer, Newman studied law at the University of Liverpool and, after dipping her toe into the murky world of corporate crime, decided that commercial work was more to her taste. She has gone from all-singing, all-dancing fee earner - she explains that the start of her career the role was far less specialised than it is now, as she worked for a number of insurers, undertaking a combination of professional indemnity and other work - to partner of one of the leading risk law specialist firms, tackling issues such as the dreaded pay gap.

'Women make up at least 50 per cent of the population. It's just completely ridiculous for the modern world for women not to be paid the same as men for doing the same job as well as the other person,' says Newman, when I ask why people should care about the gender pay gap. 'A person doing a job as well as another person should be paid the same - that's not just a women's issue. The time that it's being suggested it's going to take to equalise is just too long, and I don't understand why it has to be.'

Lord Sumption is, of course, the Supreme Court judge who suggested it could take 50 years to achieve gender equality in the judiciary, and said that if it was rushed, it 'could have appalling consequences.' So, if we are not to rush gender equality, and if gender quotas are deemed 'patronising', 'anti-meritocratic', and 'discriminatory', as they were in research recently published by legal recruiter Laurence Simons (see page 10), what are the options? Surely, there is a plethora of capable, talented, and experienced women waiting to move through the ranks. Where are they? Newman puts it simply: 'There's still difficulty around women returning to work.'

She continues: 'It's a challenging time. We are, as a business, exceptionally accommodating; I know other law firms are not. We will go as far as we can to be very, very flexible on women's return to work. You've got to get the female partners or potential partners back into the workforce and then you've got to support them. You've got to look at them with the same criteria and not say, "Oh, she'll be going home at 4" - which, again, is where the flexible working comes into it. If you have to go home at 4 but log on again at 7, it makes life a lot easier.'

BLM's statistics speak for themselves: almost 90 per cent of women who returned from maternity leave in the past 12 months returned to work, and their salaried and equity partner female to male ratio is 4:6, a feat better than the aspirational 30 per cent figure targeted by other firms. In addition, 65 per cent of the BLM's fee earners are women - an impressive stat, considering that defendant insurance work is miles away from the areas of law typically considered female friendly, such as family, conveyancing, and human rights.

Flexible working - a women's issue?

Nevertheless, encouraging women to come back to work can be as problematic as changing a firm's perceptions about return-to-work mothers: 'There are a lot of changes going on in the legal world, so it's hard work, there's a lot of stress involved, and if you're at that period of your life where you're also juggling a family, it can become extremely challenging. You need an employer that's prepared to support you,' says Newman.

'I wouldn't be surprised if that's why the numbers might drop off at the [partner or potential partner] level. I've seen women return to work who are definitely partner material, but they're just too exhausted. We've got to have a flexible environment around that. And then there are childcare costs, which are just astronomical.'

Newman is right on both counts. While the profession is observing a surge of women accepted onto law courses at the junior end of the profession, the gender - and ethnicity - gap at the top tiers remains vast. And, the UK continues to hold the coveted award for some of the most expensive childcare in 21st-century Europe; for some families it just does not pay for women to return to work. How, then, does one tackle the lack of representation among women across >> >> boardrooms and, much more importantly, how is it assured that these measures are not merely lip service?

'I was responsible for creating an office environment that allowed and encouraged flexible working,' explains Newman. 'We already had flexible working as a policy. The conversations would be twofold - they're obviously with HR but they're also with line managers and partners. We keep in contact with people when they're off and encourage them by asking, "What would work for you? Would that work for us? Perhaps not, but how about this?" We try to not be prescriptive. A returner to work is coming back to my team soon, and we're being very flexible, and both of us are wondering if it's going to work, but I trust her, she's brilliant, and why not? You've got to have that attitude, you have to trust, and then it becomes the norm.'

Newman's means are tried and tested, common-sense measures, based on open, honest discussion, and a commitment to find a working pattern that works well for both firm and employee. Yet there is a stigma attached to the part-time, flexi worker that does not feed into the profession's presenteeism culture, where billing thousands of hours a year and working 12 to 16-hour days is not just the norm, but an expectation.

But flexible working, in Newman's eyes, is not a reserved 'women's issue', but what people prefer, in relation to where they live and their aspirations outside of work. 'People have awfully long commutes now that they didn't used to and young people want to buy a property or even rent somewhere that's at least slightly affordable.'

Commercial benefits

Bringing men into the conversation, either for
their own benefit or to raise an awareness of
the hurdles women face when reaching that tipping point between family and career, is
key in securing equality between the sexes.
For Newman, though, why should men care?
How do we make them care?

'There are all sorts of angles that you can look at this topic from,' she says. 'Men have daughters, mothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues - we're all in this together. But also, it's about talent and innovation. Unless you're getting the right people around the table and paying them in the right way, we won't have the talent that we need to keep developing as a business, as a country, globally. It's a man's issue as well. And also, it's a basic human rights.'

Newman adds that, strategically, diversity reaps commercial rewards: 'The more diverse the ideas you have and the talent that you have, the more innovation, the more enthusiasm, the more motivation, the easier it is to lead, to learn. Something people don't always see as a benefit is that it's so enjoyable to work with diverse people. It never seems to be mentioned how good fun it is to work alongside people who come from different backgrounds and have a different way of looking at the world. We don't all have to look at it in the same way, but we can collaborate to bring ideas to the table and to deliver.'

However, the burden of implementing successful diversity initiatives is not one that is instantaneously lifted, but is instead an ongoing process. Newman explains that policies and procedures are embedded into BLM's culture, which aims to negate the obvious issues. She also encourages healthy debate on gender equality points in meetings with other equity partners, and calls out those at a senior level if an unacceptable comment has been made.

'If you get talking about the strategic benefits of diversity at a very senior level, it starts to filter down. That would be the main thing I do in my leadership role. I try to live that role within my team, in the way I deal with people and clients from all ranges of expertise and levels, to try to provide a positive role model. And also, I try to, where I see other people being positive role models, see that they're praised and pointed out. The thing that's most difficult is challenging [unacceptable] behaviours in an open-plan environment, and making sure people are aware what's not acceptable and why you've chosen that person. Just challenging it and living what you believe in.'

Queen Bee syndrome

Calling out people for ignorant, sexist remarks may be more common than you think. The Twittersphere's Everyday Sexism community documents throwaway comments made, believe it or not, every day, at the expense of women. Recent tweets that can be found under the eponymous #everydaysexism are from the Women's Equality Party co-founder, Catherine Mayer, who asked, 'Being followed down the street by a man asking "are you a model?" Yes, I'm the model of every woman unimpressed by #everydaysexism'; site user Tanya Beetham who wrote, 'mechanic: "you won't know anything about cars but..." Actually, I knew everything you just told me about my car. #everydaysexism'; and @alihschmidt, who tweeted: 'Diverting me on the sidewalk and saying "Women should always walk on the inside" isn't polite. It's #everydaysexism'. These prevalent and ingrained behaviours and comments are what Newman is keen to expel from a modern working culture. When I ask her what she has witnessed
in and out of the office across her career, she - sadly - replies with: 'I see some really basic stuff.'

'If you've got a senior woman in a meeting
room taking along a more junior man, people
will still talk to the man. There's an issue around bonuses, from what I hear from my friends and colleagues. Men still achieve higher bonuses -
it's a cultural thing.

'There's still a lot of discussion about the way women look. They're judged on whether they have appropriate clothes on, or whether they're pretty, and things you don't often hear in relation to men. It's quite unusual to be senior at a meeting - you're still often the only woman or one of only a handful of women. People might make the comment - "who is she?"'

And, if a woman isn't being noticed by a man, she may not be being noticed by a female peer, either. 'Queen Bee' syndrome is a phenomenon picked up on by Patricia Gillette, a former partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Gillette, now a keynote speaker on gender equality and diversity in firms, explains that in private practice there are instances where 'there are only one or two women who have risen to positions of power, and, like Queen Bees, they think they should be the only women in the room and have pulled the ladder up behind them'.

Writing in Solicitors Journal's Management Focus earlier this year, she continues: 'While they have the power to allow other women to enter leadership positions, they choose not to do so. Instead, they sit comfortably at the table where decisions are made and do nothing to advance other women - or, even worse, they oppose or sabotage efforts to change policies that might increase the power of women coming up through the ranks.'

I ask Newman whether this is something
she's also witnessed: 'That's a bit worrying, but
I agree with it. There is that culture, and I have
seen it out in the market; women professing to
be supportive, but actually what you see is that they prop themselves up. But sometimes it's that you've struggled so hard, you're so exhausted,
and you need assistance almost to help guide
and bring people in. It's a skill, and there's some training and coaching and development skill required for that.

'I don't think that's necessarily how these women want to be, or how they planned it. It is a real struggle, you have to battle, and you're still fighting lots of barriers. It's bringing everyone to the party at the same time, which is why having a more diverse workforce helps, because you're all working together as a team.'

Laura Clenshaw is managing editor of Solicitors Journal @L_Clenshaw

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