Home > Angaza Insights > On International Women's Day 2016, Dame Linda Dobbs, ILFA President asks, What is holding women solicitors back?

On International Women's Day 2016, Dame Linda Dobbs, ILFA President asks, What is holding women solicitors back?

The highlight of our International Women's Day 2016, was a presentation given by Dame Linda Dobbs, ILFA President at Gowling WLG who asks - What is holding women solicitors back and what are they going to do about it?

We are always talking about diversity – if all the talking translated into action I wouldn’t be here. Progress has been made in the diversity of the profession, largely centred on entry into the profession but the progress has not been startling. With the changing legal landscape where small firms, which usually have higher numbers of BaME lawyers, are closing; where competition for places in the city firms is increasing and the opportunities for partnership getting harder, it is generally accepted that diversity will suffer and the under-representation of women (particularly at the top) and minority ethnic lawyers will continue. This has a knock on effect on the composition of the judiciary.

When I was at the Bar life was very different. There were few women. They tended to do family and publicly funded work; there were even fewer female QCs and similarly very few senior female partners in the city. There were no support groups. You just got on with it. From this perspective, things have changed for the better.


What Do The Statistics Show Us?
2014 Chambers Student “Gender in Law” survey.
Average percentage of female solicitors by level and type of firm
Magic Circle firms
US Firms
Other London Firms
The regional firms do best of all. If we delved more deeply, the figures would tell of a significant attrition rate between being an associate and being a partner.


What Are The Challenges?

Diversity initiatives abound; some more successful than others. Whilst we struggle with the challenge of improving the diversity figures there are further challenges which threaten to undermine these initiatives. They are, inter alia, the changing legal landscape in the city, the cuts to legal aid, the closing down of courts and the consequent closing down of many firms of solicitors.

You well know that in the city there is greater competition from international firms, mergers abound – just look at your firm; there is pressure from the clients demanding more for less. The coming into force of the Legal Services Act 2007 with Alternative Business Structures is bringing increased competition from the Big 4 accountancy firms and others.

The reality is that whilst there has been change for the better in the legal professions, like the judiciary, the change is not happening with any great pace at the top of the professions, save in very exceptional cases. There are very talented women practitioners around. So the question to be asked is:

What Is Holding Back Women Solicitors?

Let me start with perceptions. “Opportunity Now” which is part of “Business in the Community” did some research a few years ago on women and men’s perceptions of the barriers to women’s progression. What the research found is that the women’s perceptions of the barriers had changed little over five years and in some cases had increased. Balancing work and family was perceived as the biggest barrier. The next most significant barrier was the perception of others that women are less committed to work as a result of this balancing act.

There was a continuing very large gap in the perceptions between men and women when it came to potential barriers to advancement. Men, it seems are unable to understand what it feels to be a woman at work. To take some examples – 82% of women recognised that women have to balance work and family; only 54% of men recognised this.

57% of women perceived that women are seen as less committed to work because they often have family commitment but just 20% of men saw it as a barrier.

49% of women but only 14% of men saw stereotyping and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities as a barrier. There is clearly a lot of work to be done with men in the workplace and, in particular, those who are in positions of influence.

A further challenge lies in the statistics. Since 1993 there has been roughly 50/50 new entrants into the profession, yet the partnership figures remain low despite the tenfold growth between 1984 and 2008. This tells you how bad it was in the old days.

The same Chambers Gender Diversity survey found that of the 100 plus firms they surveyed only 2 had a partnership with more than 50% woman – Leigh Day 63.3% (it is a top employment firm so might expect them to have high standards in this regard). Kingsley Napley 50%. Government legal services came third on their list with 49% although not a law firm but they focussed on senior civil servants which is the equivalent to partners.

There seems to be a correlation between those firms with more women at the top and the areas of specialisation. The firms with better diversity figures often deal with social welfare, employment and family law, areas where traditionally women have predominated – areas where lawyers are usually lower paid than their commercial counterparts. So not only is there discrepancy in partnerships but also discrepancy in pay.

Another challenge is that the effects of historic sexism do not appear to have gone. Right up to the 1980s it was assumed that female solicitors would leave their jobs when they got married or decided to have children. Even though attitudes have changed and are changing the attrition rate is still high – the rate of practising female solicitors drops from 60% to 40% after the age of 35 whilst the decline amongst practising male solicitors is modest.

Flexible working was said to be the obvious answer to the problem. However a survey of 800 female solicitors conducted by Kings College and AWS found that half the respondents felt that working flexibly means that you are viewed as less serious about your career ( and therefore less likely to receive promotion) .

Getting pregnant is not always welcome. You may remember one former trainee succeeded in a pregnancy discrimination case against Travers Smith. In fact law firms and businesses alike often cite motherhood as an explanation for low numbers of women in senior management and partners. Research by the 30% Club in 2014 found that attrition at the upper level was not such a problem , it was promotion. Men were twice more likely to be promoted to partnership in a given year and three times as likey to be made equity partners. Why is that? Is it because they do not want to offer partnerships to employees who work part time or flexibly? If not, why not?

Unconcious Bias

Social theorists have long argued that perceptions of merit and power are linked to traditionally masculine appearances and mannerisms (strong and assertive) Women often receive mixed messages – they are expected to look attractive and feminine but not so attractive that they don’t distract other from their work.

We know, and research shows, that women tend to be more self-critical than men and less likely to exaggerate their own abilities, and in fact underplay them. You will have many a mediocre man progress boasting about themselves and it works – sadly.

You may also remember the Clifford Chance memo to female employees leaked to the press in 2013 where it was suggested that they amongst other things lowered the pitch of their voice – research shows that voters are apparently more likely to vote for politicians with lower voices and for those of you who are old enough – you will recall how Maggie Thatcher had elocution lessons which brought a considerable change to the tone of her voice.

Unconscious bias plays a huge role in our interactions with and perceptions of others. Time does not allow for me to go into this very interesting topic. It is heartening to know that perhaps Clifford Chance learnt a lesson as they introduced unconscious bias training for the senior partners. In fact this is something which should be rolled out across every firm, not just the senior partners.

So What Were the Barriers or Challenges Identified by Research Into the Position of Women Lawyers?

The Law Society’s research on Obstacles and Barriers to Career Development of Women Solicitors in 2010 identified five key themes emerging: 1)  the lack of flexible working – this being the most significant obstacle to women reaching senior roles; 2) the ingrained masculine culture and absence of sufficient role models. The long hours structure for young lawyers. 3) The infrastructure – billable hours system weighs against women; Not good enough management skills and structures.

4) Measurements of success  - not having a transparent track to partnership the selection process not being properly understood – understanding the rules and playing the game being the route to success. Where quantity is measured, then flexible working militates against progression.

5) Women not putting themselves forward and breaking the barriers.

What is to Be Done About It?

“Opportunity Now” set out the areas in which work needed to be done in order to tackle the barriers for women’s advancement. They were:

  • Raising awareness

  • Setting targets

  • Developing leadership

  • Encouraging role models

  • Tackling unconscious bias

  • Finding mentors and sponsors

  • Giving women a voice

  • Providing women with a platform

  • Mainstreaming agile ( flexible) working

Let’s Take Raising Awareness for Example:

We know that there is a business case for diversity and inclusion in the law firms  - the Law Society has set it out in a document with the same title pointing out the benefits of diversity in meeting legal and regulatory equality requirements, access to a wider recruitment pool, retention of staff, reduction of absenteeism and a flexible and responsive workforce amongst other indicators. 

From that research and other research the Law Society created a carriers barrier action plan 2013 setting out actions which the LS was to undertake in a three year plan to improve the diversity of the profession at all levels. The outcomes sought from the firms so far as career development is concerned are: For firms to take a more proactive and inclusive approach to staff development; improvement in mentoring programmes for under-represented groups in the profession; promoting networking as a means to assist career progression; consistent and fair measurements of career success within law firms. So far as improving working conditions to ensure retention of staff the LS sought widespread understanding acceptance and promotion of flexible working practices; elimination of pay differentials between gender and race and a safe environment for dealing with grievances and complaints.

The Law Society now publishes work done by law firms – called Diversity Case Studies. The range covered by the firms is wide: the projects are targeted at recruitment; setting up networks, the setting out of policies and diversity action plans; training of staff in equality and diversity matters; equality and diversity in tendering; keeping and monitoring diversity statistics, diversity workshops, sharing good practice, mentoring, establishment of targets, equal pay audits. These are admirable initiatives; they are initiatives which need encouraging and nurturing. However, all too often we see that the success of these initiatives are very much linked to the person in charge of them. Get a change of personnel and unless the initiatives are so embedded, then there is a high risk of failure. There is also pressure from above to cut costs and inevitably diversity loses out in the end – it should not.

Wragge and Co has an enviable record of awards for being “Best Workplace”, “Best Pro Bono partnership”, “Best Student Marketing” etc. Your firm also lists many initiatives on the Law Society’s website. But one should always strive to do better and not sit on one’s laurels. So let me end here therefore and move on the discussion with a few questions I have of you as to how you can improve your record in helping women progress within the firm. You can chose which ones you wish to run with.

The Questions To Ask:

 1.What is the percentage of female partners in the firm? What is the percentage of female equity partners?

2. Do you have targets? What do you think of them?

3. Do you have such audits? If not, why not?

4. Do you have mentoring for female associates?

5. How can the work be carried out under flexible working?

6. Are you using technology to the fullest? Are you prepared to be properly connected?

7. Do you need to change the drivers/indicators for promotion – is there enough emphasis on quality as opposed to quantity be it fee earning or length of hours put in?

8. How are you going to change the culture and perceptions? If don’t get the men on board then constant battle. What values need to change? How do you do it? Who is going to do it?