Gender equality: from conversations to action
The battle for women equality needs to focus on measurable initiatives, says Pippa Allsop
Last month, on 8 March, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. Recent studies on gender equality in the professional workplace suggest there has been some progress in recent years but that this is far from significant.
For 28 years women have made up over 60 per cent of new entrants into the profession, and two years ago in 2017 just over 50 per cent of practising solicitors were female. But of the 30,000 partners in private practice, only 28 per cent of are women.
Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society, describes progress towards gender equality as “glacial”. She is part of the Law Society’s Women in Leadership in Law project, which identified a path to positive change and designed a toolkit setting out five specific areas where real progress can be made on gender diversity.
This is the most significant barrier preventing many women from reaching senior positions” in the legal profession. Only 11% of those surveyed said that unconscious bias training was consistently carried out in their organisation.
Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace is crucial, with mandatory training for those individuals involved in hiring, promotions and per- formance reviews, along with a ‘follow up’ element whereby firms are encouraged to track outcomes from hiring through the promotion process.
Gender pay gap
The Law Society survey found that “only 16 per cent reported visible steps being taken to address the gender pay gap within their organisation.”
They are hopeful that the government’s introduction of the new gender pay gap reporting requirements, together with the balance of female practising solicitors tipping the balance at 50.1% for the first time, will encourage firms into taking active measures to improve the current situation.
The Law Society have partnered with the First 100 Years project (see page 18) to encourage firms to acknowledge and celebrate the women who have influenced and shaped their organisation. Beyond recognising the significant progress that has already been made, this is about offering “visible role models to current and future generations”.
There is an ongoing misconception that gender equality is a ‘women-only’ issue. Helena Kennedy QC is one of many who have urged men in the legal profession to call out sexist behaviour instead of tolerating or, worse, encouraging it.
In addition, The Law Society makes clear that this is not just a problem for 50% of us, encouraging men to be “advocates, influencers and champions of change”.
According to Chancery Lane, “the challenges encountered by women in the workplace, specifically in the legal sector, are symptomatic of wider issues”.
It is only by exploring and fully understanding the global societal difficulties that women face that we can properly support and strengthen women, both
in the legal profession and outside of it.
In an article for Solicitors Journal five years ago, I argued it was important to keep the dialogue surrounding gender equality lively and loud and to ensure that, by focusing on the eradication of sexist conversations, we did not end up having no conversations at all.
Although there are many movements which support and invaluably underpin the ongoing battle for gender equality, there is very clearly still much to be done.
This year marks the 100th anniversary since women were allowed to join the legal profession. The diversification and innovation of the legal sphere since that time is indisputable, but there are still barriers yet to be overcome.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 was “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. Law firms need to demonstrate that they are not just paying lip service to gender equality by designing initiatives and leaving it there. A demonstration of ongoing commitment is required - tracking those initiatives and using the information to inform further change for the better, until real results are achieved.
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com