Overcoming the barriers that prevent women from entering and progressing in law is an imperative for the future of the profession. However, the legal sector will not be able to provide suitable responses to gender inequality without first having a deep understanding of the global barriers that limit the career progression of female lawyers.
This report follows our previous report ’Influencing for Impact: The Need for Gender Equality in the Legal Profession’, which summarised the findings from the women’s roundtables that formed part of the Women in Leadership in Law project.
This report sets out additional findings of men-only roundtables held across England and Wales from November 2018 to March 2019.
The participating male leaders included senior lawyers working in firms; in-house legal teams in a range of different sizes and types of businesses; and in the public sector. Participants acknowledged that women are under-represented in senior positions in the legal services sector and put forward practical solutions aimed at redressing this imbalance.
The main recommendations to tackle gender imbalance raised from the roundtables are:
- In order for unconscious bias training to be meaningful, it needs to be compulsory and ongoing and include those in senior leadership positions.
- Taking practical steps to ensure that the culture in the organisation is one where networking opportunities are not male-dominated and the atmosphere is not one where only ‘male’ attributes are valued.
- Ensuring proper processes are in place with a view to eliminating unconscious bias from recruitment and selection processes.
- A greater emphasis on promotion prospects, and the importance of looking closely at the pipeline of future candidates to ensure that women are gaining suitable experience and credibility in the years ahead of promotion decisions. In practical terms, for example in a partnership context, this means effective succession planning and looking ahead at who is coming up through the ranks with senior leaders playing a more proactive part.
- Ensuring that supervisors and managers do not make assumptions about whether women with caring responsibilities are less likely to be able and willing to take on work that could involve unpredictable hours, late hours and/or travel at short notice. These kinds of work experiences can play a really important part in helping both women and men to secure the track record and credibility needed for promotion, particularly in private practice, and any such assumptions can be harmful.
- Consistently giving women the chance to secure high-impact assignments over a long period of time, rather than focusing primarily on billable hours. Such work is taken into account when producing shortlists for promotions and sideways moves. Large law firms often require men and women doing demanding high-pressure work for quite a few years to make a positive career impact
- Conducting an appropriate and well-rounded assessment of the total contribution of women to the business. This includes considering the non-chargeable but important work connected with pro bono, client and practice development, corporate social responsibility and knowledge management.
- Using technical/digital/objective methods for work allocation which, although not primarily designed to eliminate bias, could naturally lead to a much fairer allocation process.
- Developing ‘returners programmes’ targeted at all returners (male and female) who have been out of the profession for three years or more. These programmes could have a longer-term effect of increasing the willingness of women to return to frontline demanding work after career breaks.
- Encouraging firms introducing or enhancing alternative sourcing offerings to clients which would allow lawyers with the right skills and experience to work for fixed periods on a contract basis, rather than returning to the full-time workforce. These kinds of ‘on demand’ client offerings could be particularly attractive for experienced women wanting to manage their working time over a longer period, perhaps at least whilst transitioning back to full-time permanent work.
- Improving retention of senior women in firms and in-house. When women have reached senior positions, they tend to leave full-time frontline work earlier than men – in a law firm context it is not only a case of increasing the percentage of women ‘making’ partner, but also considering how they can best be retained in senior positions for the years to come.
- Encouraging senior men to continue acting as sponsors, coaches and role models for women in their firms and organisations.
- Encouraging external firms bidding for in-house work to be open about fee earners on the team who work part-time. It was said in several roundtables that it was perfectly fine for individuals to work part-time, as long as the client knew and was aware of how the overall assignment was being covered.
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