The diversity series—Women and gender diversity in the legal profession

13 Mar 2019 | 5 min read

Legend has it that the first women to join the legal profession was Carrie Morrison. Morrison along with three other women, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes, were challenged to a running race down the length of London’s Chancery Lane in a bid to become the first female solicitor. The first women to pass through the doors of the Law Society, would be crowned the winner of such a right. Little would those women from the legend have known, that this would mark the start of females having to overcome barriers in the profession to gain gender diversity. Today, the legal profession is a very different place, with the number of female solicitors outweighing male solicitors—with women making up 50.2% of practising certificate holders, as noted by the Law Society. Although these figures may be a positive and promising step, research shows that there is still a lot to be done when addressing gender diversity in the legal profession.

In tribute to the recent 110th inaugural International Women’s Day—which focused on a ‘balance for better’ and the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, we released our final diversity series podcast episode, in which we interviewed Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, addressing the current issues facing women in the legal profession.

Blacklaws herself has had a colourful journey, from joining an all women’s firm in Brixton, London, as a community, setting up her own firm and then later becoming President of the Law Society. Working across such varied environments, one thing that really stood out is, Blacklaws has worked with many women and has a great understanding of the value they can bring to the practice in many different ways.

When discussing why a gender balanced workforce is such a positive in the legal profession, Blacklaws noted that ‘anyone who isn’t convinced by the moral, legal or rightness argument’, then they should specifically focus on the business case. Following research from organisations such as the Women’s Business Council on ‘Maximising women’s contribution to future economic growth’ and McKinsey’s ‘Why diversity matters’, it has been found that a diverse workforce leads to better business sales and a rise in profitability value. This doesn’t only apply to gender diversity alone, but to the wider umbrella of diversity which we have touched upon in this series—BAME, LGBTQ+ and gender all have a part to play in these statistics, as well as any other protected characteristic.

With women, for the last 30 years representing between 60-67% of the population of newly qualified solicitors, Blacklaws stressed that for those who are ignoring this statistic and not actively trying to address the gender balance in their businesses will be unlikely to succeed. She notes ‘without harnessing female talent at the top of businesses, they are closing themselves off to the potential value these women bring to run their organisations and make crucial decisions’.

In trying to dig deeper into the topic of gender diversity in the profession, Blacklaws said that it isn’t just a ‘hot topic’ but ‘the topic’ of the moment. With movements, such a #MeToo and the recent Gender Pay Gap reporting, she notes that this is the first time light has been shed on these issues, and firms have addressed their own issues through the prism of gender. Blacklaws suggests that this topic has risen so high on the agenda for the profession as for many they have been shocked by their own findings—which, although terrible holds a silver lining as the ‘momentum, insight, awareness and anger’ can be utilised to ensure the profession is committed to addressing these issues. Blacklaws notes that in any case, the first steps to making positive change is ‘awareness and then a willingness to act on that information’.

Despite identifying positives, such as women holding the majority at entry level to the profession, Blacklaws stressed that there are still some vital issues to overcome when attempting to achieve gender equality. Currently women are struggling to climb the legalladder: only 28% of partners in the UK are female, with men holding a 72% majority—this gap only increases further at larger law firms. In trying to understand the reasons behind this, Blacklaws identified unconscious bias as the biggest area of concern—saying ‘the assumption made about individuals because of their gender is the biggest inhibiter to gender progression’. She notes that this is extremely difficult to overcome as ‘we are all born with a set of biases hardwired into us from birth’ meaning it can be very hard for us to address.

Throughout this diversity series, in our previous articles (An interview with Robin White; BAME diversity in the legal profession) and podcasts, we have seen the same issues arise in terms of barriers to progression— across the board, unconscious bias appears to be the area of main concern. Blacklaws says that by ‘unlocking diversity for one protected characteristic, you start to also unlock it for others…the problems are many and diverse, [however] some of the solutions are actually the same’.

The Law Society has dug deeper into how we can challenge these issues with the release of its latest two tool kits. These are aimed, not only at women, but for men too, in a bid to help groups and individuals take action in their firms and organisations. The Society is set to launch a further set of toolkits to support these at its International Symposium on 20-21st June 2019 in London.

With a push for progress, Blacklaws says: ‘The things that bind us together are much stronger than those that differentiate us…true of the problems, but also of the solutions.’ The Law Society aims with its work and investigations through round tables that it can ‘shift the needle to make the profession a safe supportive and level environment in which everyone can thrive’.

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