Women’s rights, feminism, gender bias, the gender pay gap, the ‘me too’ campaign or the ‘times-up’ movement. Whatever phrase you use, it’s 2018 and there’s no shying away from it. Now more than ever, sexism towards women in the workplace is under constant scrutiny from the public, the media and the business world.

Women in the legal profession today no longer face the challenges that were encountered 30 years back to the same extremes. The positive steps made by those in the industry, smashing glass ceilings and driving the empowerment of females in the industry, have all contributed to making a more equal and diverse profession, with the goal of getting rid of misogyny altogether.

There are, however, still several gender-based problems facing the industry today. While assertive women are often judged as harsh and unpleasant, the more passive are termed as weak and lacking the self-confidence to do the job. There is also a clear gender pay divide and accusations of underlining gender bias at senior levels continue.

 

Gender pay-gap

Equal pay for equal work sounds reasonable, right? It’s hard to believe that in 2018, we’re still talking about the gender pay gap yet the fact remains that there is one Country (Iceland) in the world where women earn the same as men.

Since April 6th, 2017, companies with more than 250 employees are legally required to publish annual figures for both men’s and women’s wages under a new law and many companies have already reported this ahead of the deadline. Despite the Equal Pay Act which was brought in during the 1970s, outlawing favourable treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment, a report by the Law Society in March 2014 on the gender pay gap for solicitors showed that it is still around 30% less for women in private practice and 27.8% for women working in-house. The figures are shocking as the national average across the UK is 9.1%.  The employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy said: “The gender pay gap reporting provisions are likely to do more for pay parity in five years than equal pay legislation has done in 45 years”.

The government hopes that by shining a light on pay inequality, companies will be made to take measures in order to eliminate gender pay gaps, it’s argued this could add £150bn to annual GDP by 2025. However this legislation does allow firms to provide an explanation for the findings, and to give details about actions being taken to reduce or eliminate any pay gap.

This law will allow firms to analyse their own discrepancies and address them head-on. It provides the opportunity to study trends in progression at firms and identify where gender gaps start to appear. According to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics, around two-thirds of the UK gender pay gap can’t be explained by factors such as a lack of women in senior roles and women working part-time. This might be explained, however, by the brutal fact that women’s competencies and skills are being undervalued, so women frequently earn less than men for doing jobs of equal value. Whatever the reason, this law will provide great insight for firms and allows them to action plans on eliminating underlying sexism and gender bias within their business altogether.

 

Progression

Since the early 1990’s, women have accounted for more than half of new entrants to the legal profession and in 2016 the UK saw 67.5% of law graduates being female. While for some years, women have outnumbered men in law schools, they represent only 28.5% of partnership promotions in the top 20 firms in the UK. The UK currently has the lowest number of female judges in Europe; the Council of Europe report says the England & Wales figure is 30% and the proportion in Scotland is 24%, while the European average is currently more than half.

The current culture can make it difficult for women to visualise a successful career offering any flexibility or a reasonable form of work/life balance. Successfully balancing work and family lives can be difficult for both genders, however, it is often more of a challenge for women. This is not an issue that solely affects the legal industry; women from all professional fields will face discrimination at some point in their career, usually from ‘old school’ senior male managers who still struggle to understand the demands and expectations of women at work and at home. There is the call for significant changes to the industry’s culture which should be based on both genders and on strengthening their business by working in a more diverse and contemporary way, creating working practices that are open to all. (The Law Society, Obstacles and Barriers to the career development of women solicitors, March 2010)

 

Attitudes

Across all business and industries, there has been a culture shift and attitudes towards women in the workplace, seeing women as the professional equals of men. The legal industry still carries stereotypes of male dominance and institutionalised sexism, however, there are now much more positive attitudes towards the progression and empowerment of women in the industry. Lady Justice Heather Hallett, the first woman vice-president of the Queen’s Bench division and chair of the Judges’ Council diversity committee, said that the legal industry has “changed considerably for the better, I hope there is no glass ceiling.” She said: “Greater recognition that sexism and discriminatory practices are unacceptable is needed across all organisations, as well as the genuine commitment of those in senior positions to improve diversity and social inclusion. There are some men who, having seen dramatic changes since the 1970s and question whether there are still any problems today” – The Guardian, Law, 2017

Despite the progression of equality, law firms across the country are encouraged to continue to tackle deep-rooted sexist attitudes and promote values which reflect the diversity of their business.

Law firm DLA Piper is a trailblazer in the advancement of female lawyers and is recognised as Employer of Choice for Gender Equality since 2014. The Top 100 firm is proactive in strategising in order to retain, promote and develop female lawyers. They actively address many of the underlying causes of gender disparities in the legal profession, promoting initiatives to challenge unconscious biases and gender stereotypes, and advocating informal networks of support to help all lawyers balance both their work and family responsibilities.

Outwardly, organisations such as Women in Law London work with firms and companies in London to implement policies and practices that will positively impact the retention rate of women in law. They encourage firms to promote the values of diversity and inclusion throughout their businesses. Whether this is through recruitment, retention, career progression or training and development, Women in Law is committed to improving opportunities for people in the legal profession, regardless of background or circumstance.

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