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Influencing for Impact – the Law Society report on the need for gender equality in the legal profession

25 April 2019

2019 marks the 100 year anniversary of women having the right to qualify as solicitors and barristers (as well as serve on juries and act as magistrates).

To mark the anniversary, the Law Society has published a report on Women in Leadership in Law (Influencing for Impact: the need for gender equality in the legal profession). A link to the full report is here.

Whilst the last 100 years have seen a huge amount of change, there remains a significant gender disparity at the top of the legal profession. Despite women representing 62% of new admissions, they represent about 31% of partners in private practice.  Although there is a disparity across the UK, it is particularly pronounced in large city firms where the percentage of female partners is significantly lower.

The report’s findings are based on research which involved the contribution of approximately 12,000 lawyers through surveys and follow-up roundtable discussions.  The roundtable discussions focused on the perceived barriers which the survey had identified as inhibiting the progression of women, namely: unconscious bias; the gender pay gap; and flexible working. The discussions asked for examples of best-practice ways to overcome those barriers.

Unconscious bias

53% of respondents cited unconscious bias as a reason that so few women reach senior positions in law firms. The report found that there remains a perception that women do not fit the traditional image of a business leader and that ‘male’ characteristics are rewarded whilst ‘female’ characteristics are undervalued.  It also found that different language labels can help contribute to gender bias (for example, the difference between being described as ‘confident’ and being described as ‘bossy’).

It reports that women feel pressure to ‘over-deliver’ just to be seen as equal with their male colleagues. Many women reported that assumptions were still being made about them because of their gender (commonly still assumed to be the ‘tea-girl’ or note-taker when the only woman in the room).

When it comes to progression, it was reported that there is more often an assumption that a man will want to be a partner and so men are more likely to benefit from (particularly informal) career support.

The report proposes a number of solutions, including:

  • Lead from the top so that the most senior partners support and sponsor strategies to make their firms more inclusive.
  • Introduce unconscious bias training (only 11% of lawyers responding to the survey reported having received training).
  • Ensure that recruitment and promotion is based on competencies only (for example by trying to ensure an equal number of male and female candidates are considered for every opportunity and ensuring the panels of decision makers are sufficiently diverse).

Remuneration, equal pay and the gender pay gap

60% of respondents reported being aware of a gender pay gap in their organisation but only 16% reported visible steps being taken to address the issue. Interestingly a smaller proportion of women (15%) reported steps being taken than men (32%).

A lack of clarity in relation to remuneration was also identified as a concern across the profession – over 55% of roundtable participants felt that the pay and reward systems in their organisation are not transparent (with many roundtable participants being unclear about how salaries and bonuses are calculated).

The report also identifies a view that there are often unequal opportunities for women to secure greater remuneration which can be reflected in an unfair disruption of work.

In terms of solutions, the report focuses on:

  • Ensuring equality of pay.
  • Valuing contribution equally and ensuring fairer work allocation.
  • Measuring pay gaps across other minority groups (e.g. ethnicity and disability).
  • Including partner pay in gender pay gap calculations and having an action plan to reduce the pay gap.

Flexible and agile working

91% of respondents cited flexible and agile working as key to improving diversity and gender equality in the profession. Despite that, it is clear that there is widespread variation across firms when it comes to flexible working and the meaning of flexible working is ambiguous and unclear.

It is also reported that there remain challenges around tackling the perceptions associated with flexible working (for example, not being available at short notice being perceived as a lack of commitment).

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Making flexible working available to everyone.
  • Senior leaders leading by example and demonstrating that working flexibly can be undertaken at all levels.
  • Avoiding assumptions about what those with caring responsibilities are able to do.
  • Considering the timing of meetings to accommodate those working flexible.
  • Ensuring that firms have the right IT solutions to make flexible working possible.

Best practice initiatives

The report also suggests a number of best practice initiatives, including getting engagement and support from men as champions for change and creating more opportunities for women to support each other.

Lewis Silkin’s response

At Lewis Silkin we are committed to reviewing and bench-marking our own practices alongside the report recommendations. We will ensure that all partners and employees receive unconscious bias training and already ensure that flexible working is open to everyone. We have undertaken a listening exercise to understand better the challenges faced by women across the Firm and will be working to address those challenges with the support of our internal women’s network. We are also committed to refreshing the various elements of our partner measurement and reward systems to ensure that it recognises overall contribution (including a commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion as part of our leadership behaviours). We have prepared and published an open letter setting out our commitment to diversity.

We are also determined to help our clients in the legal profession. We launched our #aLastingChange Campaign (#aLastingChange) to enable clients and contacts to share their thoughts and ideas about improving the experience of women in the workplace. We have also run a number of successful training programmes on unconscious bias; diversity and inclusion; and acting on (and preventing) sexual harassment. Our HR consultants regularly work with our clients to help them create action plans around gender pay and introduce coaching, mentoring (and reverse mentoring) and women in leaderships programmes into law firms. More details are available here.




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Welcome to #aLastingChange, a useful resource for ideas, collaboration, information, legal insight and opinions on how we can create a long-lasting improvement in women’s experience of work and overall make the working environment a better place for everyone.

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