2022 marks the three-year anniversary of the Women in Law Pledge; an initiative with the goal of dealing with gender inequality once and for all. Admittedly, three years is not a long time to deal with an age-old societal issue, but has anything changed?
The legal sector is often seen as a trend-setter when it comes to staff practices, working conditions and job benefits, but that is not to say that the sector comes without its faults. As with many professional, highly commercial careers, the legal sector is the subject of intense scrutiny when it comes to political and societal challenges. It is not enough anymore to be silent on issues, it is now a requirement that law firms be actively working towards defeating discrimination in the workplace.
In 2021 statistics seemed positive at first glance with women accounting for 52% of lawyers within firms. Women have long been making up the larger percentage of students in English law schools and so it is not surprising that more female solicitors are coming through into the sector. However, in looking closer at the statistics released it can be seen that only 35% of partners within firms were women.
The cause of this is not unknown – a lack of understanding regarding women’s health mixed with rife unconscious bias both internal and external to the sector.
Topics such as motherhood and the menopause are frequently cited as reasons for women leaving the profession, indicating that firms simply are not doing enough to support their female staff. Such reasons also tend to be why many women get stuck at associate level as progression within the sector is often halted for those having to take time out, for example to have a baby or for health reasons.
Furthermore, very few are not impacted by the unconscious biases that many still hold relating to women and their intellect. Managers and clients alike make assumptions and rely on biases when dealing with female staff. Women are often left feeling they must consistently prove their intelligence and must press for recognition that is frequently and easily given elsewhere.
Ultimately, the result of all of this is that we are losing a huge and immensely talented pool of lawyers from the profession.
Returning to the Women in Law Pledge, in 2019 the Law Society partnered with the Bar Council and CILEX to launch a pledge to bring gender equality to the forefront of the legal sector. Signing up meant a commitment to setting high level targets, advocating for change, and having clear plans for the progression of gender equality and diversity. In theory this was what the sector was in dire need of, acknowledgement of the issue and commitment to fix it and its effects.
Recent headlines, however, suggest that those women currently within the sector, those with the greatest direct experience of it, still feel hopeless about the future of their careers and those of other women in law.
Surveys conducted this year have shown that over 80% of women in the legal sector do not expect to see true pay parity in their working lives. Further, almost a third do not believe It will happen within the next century. These are frankly frightening statistics indicating just how far we really are from an effective fix for the gender pay gap within law. Women have been making up the majority of the legal workforce for over 30 years now, yet in all those 30 years the legal sector has failed to recognise the true value that women bring to the law and to remunerate them fairly for this.
Additional pressure is apparent as the surveys also found a strong lack of faith in firm leadership when it comes to resolving this issue. The future of the industry is reliant on leadership that has this issue at the forefront of its practice, it really is that important. 62% of those surveyed stated that the gender pay gap is not a priority for senior management, this being a key contribution to why many believe that it will be the next generation who will see any sign of positive change. With 92% of legal professionals agreeing that the pay gap is a concern for them this shows a strong disparity between the needs of the workers and the priorities of the leaders.
A one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. This is a case of equity over equality; women need to be treated differently to have the same opportunities and experiences as men. Women have been being treated in similar ways to their male counterparts, but doing so has left them with inadequate support regarding working conditions, healthcare and so much more. With 2022 also marking 100 years since the admission of the first female solicitor in our legal system, this news seems only more poignant.
Written by Leah Harris