The discourse on women in law has continued to evolve over the last few years, and although progress is being made, there are evidently gaps in diversity initiatives across the majority of firms who are looking to attract, retain, and promote women.
In a piece published by Chambers Student in February 2021, 7 years of recruitment data showcased the number of women hired, retained, and promoted in law firms, as well as the current state of the gender pay gap.
Although the figures regarding trainees and associates showed a clear increase in female vs male hiring, the issue lies within retention, rather than attraction and hiring.
There is a clear appetite from women to enter the legal sector, with c.63% of graduates being female. Furthermore, law firms are taking the right steps to ensure that women are being given opportunities to either join their firms or progress within them.
In the same article, Chambers Student highlighted key areas which have contributed to the lack of gender diversity within law firms. The most notable was outdated working practices which aren’t gender inclusive, with role modelling and implicit bias also being highlighted. Some examples include lack of remote working flexibility which would aid women with children, as well as a lack of opportunities designed for women returning to the workforce.
Although role modelling is key for retention, particularly for female associates who aspire to progress to partner level, we believe that outdated working practices are a larger contributing factor to the lack of gender diversity. Women are less likely to receive promotions or get opportunities within a firm whose infrastructure works against women, rather than favouring them.
This was echoed by JD Supra, who highlighted that “female lawyers feel forced to make significant trade-offs between career advancement and their personal lives”. The reason why these trade-offs happen is that firms are being governed in a way that is not conducive to gender equality, instead, it’s the complete opposite.
To achieve true gender diversity and gender inclusion, women in law should never feel as though they have to choose one or the other, being penalised either in their personal life or professional career.
Whether this is providing additional support for women who wish to have families, or even creating an environment that is welcoming for both men and women, there are key steps that law firms can take to ensure that they are fostering a gender-neutral culture.
It’s important to note that these changes will not be effective overnight, and instead should be part of an ongoing, wider strategy if firms wish to achieve true gender diversity, and retain women who are aspiring to carve out a successful career within law.
At Halkin, Diversity and Inclusion is something we’re vocal about, so helping clients understand how they can develop inclusive working practices is something we do on a day-to-day basis. Some of the things we advise are the following:
There are still a number of firms that haven’t embraced flexible working, when in reality, it’s one of the most critical changes a firm can make to help attract and retain more women.
Whether this is flexible working for current or expecting mothers, or flexible opportunities available for mothers returning to the workforce, creating roles that still allow for professional growth without sacrificing personal duties is integral for retention.
Although there is statutory and mandatory maternity and paternity leave that has to be offered, that’s often where it ends for a lot of firms. Something that we actively advocate and talk about is how our clients can support women coming back into the workforce, not only from a job security perspective, but also being able to phase back into working without being penalised for the time they inevitably had to take off to have a family.
This can be role modelled through other women at Partner level, but ultimately should be tackled from Associate level and above to instil trust for junior women coming into the firm that they will be supported.
With the legal profession still being largely dominated by men, we advise clients on the importance of male Partners advocating for gender equality and being open to change. Ultimately, these changes will incite positive change both for men and women.
For example, equal maternity and paternity leave will take the pressure off new mothers, whilst allowing new fathers to spend valuable time bonding with their newborn. If you are a male Partner, the change will only happen once you start advocating for it.
Whether this is educating yourself through attending workshops and events, or simply speaking to women within your firm asking how you can support them, being an ally for gender equality will enable you to attract and retain more women in the long-term.
Having a role model in the interview process, such as a successful female partner, can be a great way to put women at ease in an interview, especially if the firm is male-dominated. If you don’t have females at partner level, you can still include associates or other members of the team, as long as there is some relevance in terms of experience level.
In summary, the journey to achieving gender equality in the legal sector is far from over, however, we are confident that if the right steps are put in place, and partnerships rooted in improving D&I are made, then the needle will start to move, and firms can create a gender-neutral, and equal environment.