The Lawyers’ Path to Partnership – International Women's Day Special #BreakTheBias

Posted on 8/3/2022 by Edward Sorrell

Today (8th March) is International Women’s Day (IWD), a global day celebrating the social, cultural, economic and political impacts and achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality. IWD's mission is to help forge a gender-equal world, celebrating achievements and calling out inequality.  

IWD’s campaign theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias, something very fitting in the world of law. Law has been going under rapid innovation over the past decade to better meet lawyers' demands and respond to the changing working environment however, for female lawyers, the path to partnership has not been so easy. This article will be looking at the history of women in law and the problems women have and still face in their progression through law firms on the path to partnership. 

Realm was also lucky enough to talk to two female partners at law firms: Emma Gill, Head of the Manchester team at Vardags and Felicity Tulloch, Head of Licensing for Manchester commercial law firm Kuits on our podcast Refreshingly Honest Chats with Lawyers, where they each gave an insight into their journeys into the law, their experiences working as female partners, and what International Women’s Day means to them. Click here to listen to the full episode. 

The history of women in law 

Over the past century, women have had to battle with legislation and public opinion for their right to practice law. In 1919 a landmark act came into place, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Prior to this act, only men could become lawyers, barristers and magistrates. However, even with this Act in place, it was still a struggle for women to succeed in the legal profession. It wasn’t until over 50 years later, when the Equal Pay Act in 1970 was introduced, which forced employers to pay men and women equally.  

The gender pay gap had created large inequalities for women, stopping them from succeeding in the legal profession without other financial aid as they were not able to succeed on their own pay. However, more still needed to be done because in the workplace it was still possible to treat women less favourably because of their sex. Plus, maternity leave still wasn’t in place, forcing women who wished to have a family out of the law or leading to them being passed up for opportunity because of their potential to have children. Both the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act came in 1975. 

Even now, though there is legislation to help protect women in law there is still a large gender pay gap. In 2019 78% of companies had a pay gap that favoured men, however, laws put in place in 2010 forcing employers with over 250 staff to publish their salary data, have applied a degree of pressure on these companies to address these discrepancies.  

While the future is brighter than it once was, there is still work to be done to enable women in law to have their rightful piece of the pie. Over the last 10 years, there have been considerable improvements in gender equality, however, there is a large discrepancy in perception by gender. “74% of men reported progress in gender equality compared to 48% of women”, suggesting that the improvements aren’t having enough of an impact and there is perhaps more work that needs to be done.

Women in Leadership in the Law 

The Law Society has been collecting data since the 1990s on the position of women in law which we will be using throughout this article. This has been able to provide us with great insight into the improvements and the downfalls in the past few decades for women in law. 

Since 1990 women have represented over 60% of new entrants into the profession. In the Law Society’s last Annual Statistics Report in 2019, they stated that women with practising certificates outnumbered men by over 4,500 and that this gap has been steadily growing for a number of years. What’s more, women made up close to two-thirds of new trainees. However, whilst these statistics are encouraging, it is clear that more can still be done; only 28% of partners in private practice are women.  

So, what is stopping women from becoming partner? 

Unconscious Bias 

According to The University of Edinburgh unconscious bias is: 

“The tendency of us as humans to act in ways that are prompted by a range of assumptions and biases that we are not aware of. This can include decisions or actions that we are not consciously aware of, as well as hidden influences on decisions and actions that we believe, are rational and based on objective unbiased evidence and experience.”  

A survey done by the Law Society in 2018 found that the main barrier to career progression was unconscious bias.  Whilst people may think they are not being biased, their subconscious may be guiding them into unfair decisions and this can be rectified by making people conscious of their biases. There are many tests online that can highlight one’s unconscious bias and training sessions can be put in place to help to show triggers and inform. Being aware will be the first step to change.  

Unconscious bias is the least consistently enforced policy in the workplace with it being reported that only 11% of those surveyed reported unconscious bias training being carried out in their organisation.  Incorporating training now is likely to pave the way for large changes in the future. 

Gender Pay Gap 

It is no surprise that pay can hamper the motivation, drive and success of female lawyers and it is something that seems to be consistently ignored. In the 2017/18 survey, it showed that 60% were aware of a gender pay gap, however, only 16% reported visible steps were being taken to address this issue.  

This problem runs deep in the legal profession; however, it is something that can be changed. With the knowledge that it is illegal to discriminate against sex and not pay genders equally to the role they are doing, it is possible to address the issues of salary within the business. If you want to learn more about lawyers’ salaries, get in touch with our recruiters, to see how you compare with your specialism industry average. 

Flexible working 

Flexible working has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds since the pandemic and in our recent research report at Realm, we found that it is now the most important factor for lawyers when changing jobs. Flexible working (or lack of) used to be a large barrier to female lawyers with 91% of respondents to the 2017/18 survey believing that a flexible working culture is critical to improving diversity. 

In Realm’s research, we found a staggering 82% of lawyers being encouraged to still work from home. It will be interesting to see if it remains this way as we move on from the pandemic, however, the demand is certainly there for it to remain. Flexible working allows lawyers to fit their work around their schedule and other parts of their lives, away from work. This can allow women to have families and pursue other interests and goals away from the workplace, but still progress and succeed within their legal careers.   

Is the future bright? 

Just over 100 years ago women weren’t allowed to vote, own a house or practise law, since then it has been an arduous climb to get to where we are, however there is still more to do. In the early years after the decision to allow women the right to vote, changing perception was still difficult but with spotlights being shone everywhere and more and more women role models guiding the way, the opportunities for women in law and in the world alike are constantly improving.  

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