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In my previous articles on gender inequality at the senior levels of commercial law firms, I established that current affirmative action is ineffective to overcome the sexual harassment, gender stereotypes and biased mentoring that create the glass ceiling, and prevent women from attaining senior positions at an equal amount to men. I explained that NDAs must be prohibited, and education programmes adopted to address the male-centric attitudes that enable sexual harassment. Effective flexible working programmes and quotas must be adopted to deconstruct gender stereotypes, and mentoring programmes must be set up to support women, and overcome biased mentoring.

Sexual harassment

After evaluating workplace sexual harassment in my second article, I have discovered that the male-centric structure of law firms is the key factor in explaining why 75% of sexually harassed women lawyers do not come forward, with many fearing for their careers. Those who do come forward often sign NDAs, which prevent structural change. The affirmative action insufficiently addresses these issues; gender targets fail to address the attitudes of the predominantly older men at the top, or sufficiently equalise the physical structure, and unconscious bias training, though it attempts to address attitudes, is narrowly adopted and does not address the explicit biases of these factors. To address the issues through the radical feminist lens, there must be revolutionary change to NDA misuse and the male-centric attitudes.

Despite efforts to prevent NDAs covering up sexual harassment, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) argue that ‘small tweaks’ to NDA law will not stamp out sexual harassment; revolutionary structural change is needed. Furthermore, as long as NDAs are legal, they will continue to reinforce the cultural norm of sexual harassment against women. This, along with increased compensation, is an attractive solution, since prohibition would prevent injustices continuing under NDAs, whilst still adequately compensating victims. Removal will prohibit a tool that nurtures discrimination, changing the corporate structure in line with radical feminist revolutionary change.

Gender stereotypes

In my second article, I concluded that women feel as though they must choose between a career and a family life due to prevailing gender stereotypes. To effectively overcome this stereotype in line with radical feminism, the hypercompetitive nature of law firms which brands women as being less committed to their job than men must be addressed. Equalising childcare responsibilities between men and women by utilising flexible working programmes like parental leave and part-time schedules, rather than encouraging traditional hypercompetitive law firm features, such as billable hours, would be a positive step forward. This would destigmatise child-raising, as the current stigmatisation hinders women’s ‘advancement to leadership positions at law firms’, and would change attitudes and prevent women from being viewed as less committed. Another important step would be to promote shared caretaking responsibility will help to overcome the remaining pay gap and prevent child-raising from disproportionately limiting women. Furthermore, a growing number of men and women are interested in a better work-life balance, as 39% of lawyers state that the long hours take an unwanted toll on their personal lives. However, evidence suggests while flexible working is imperative, stereotypes against women cannot be removed until there is equality of power. This strongly emphasises the need to directly address structural inequality, going further than liberal feminism. Indeed, when considering the impact of Covid-19, flexible working alone has not advanced women’s rights, since structural inequality was not addressed, demonstrating the need for revolutionary change. For real change to happen, power within law firms must be redistributed, with men giving up their positions to women. This demonstrates that as well as changing the attitudes of lawyers away from meritocracy and male-centricity, the physical corporate structure must be changed. This will be challenging because many men, understandably, will not be lining up to give up the power that comes at senior positions in commercial law firms, which is realistic given that UK partner salaries average over £200,000 per annum. Therefore, redistribution tactics are necessary.

Power could be successfully redistributed through quotas. Gender quotas establish a defined percentage, or number of places, to be allocated to women. However, they are a form of positive discrimination, which is currently unlawful under the Equality Act. Legalising positive discrimination for the limited purpose of gender quotas would allow for a truly equal gender balance by altering the corporate structure. They have been utilised in Belgium to successfully ensure true population reflection within parliament, which demonstrates that quotas could successfully redistribute power to better reflect equality and is proportionate given the female dominance seen in the lower levels of the legal profession. Studies have found that quotas in India to ensure that women held senior positions led to more positive attitudes towards women, which reflected in increased female appointment to subcommittees. Therefore, to fully address the gender stereotypes ingrained within the conservative structure, quotas must be made lawful and utilised to equally redistribute power at senior levels of law firms, alongside flexible working programmes to reduce the hypercompetitive nature of law firms.

Biased mentoring

Finally, my second article demonstrated that women being undervalued as an organisational investment leads to biased mentoring, which demoralises women and rationalises favouring men for promotion. The current affirmative action fails to overcome this bias since it again challenges structural gender stereotypes ineffectively. The methods to reduce gender stereotypes and their limitations through flexible working and quotas, addressed in the previous section, would heavily improve attitudes towards women within the profession. However, evidence shows that women often follow what other women have done in the firm before them, improving mentoring for women is necessary to support and encourage women lawyers.

This could be achieved by enacting mentoring programmes for women. In 2015, US Law Firm Baker Donelson introduced a multi-faceted programme, which offers one-on-one mentoring upon joining the firm, topic mentors, and mentoring circles for broader discussions on interests of concern. This allows women to discuss their careers and gain ongoing advice and encouragement on topics such as work-life balance, leadership and business development. The firm reported that this programme has allowed women to better integrate into the firm, feel highly supported through one-to-one support, and feel more at ease from the information on organisational politics that junior associates typically do not know.

Furthermore, since quotas would ensure that there are more women in senior positions, this would achieve the same effect of increasing confidence in more junior women lawyers without needing exclusively female mentors. In line with radical feminism, this revolutionary change will utilise the increased number of women in senior levels from quotas, to support and inspire confidence in women lawyers, which will allow women to influence the structure of law firms to further reduce male-centric attitudes. By using mentoring schemes alongside flexible working programmes and quotas, women will no longer be viewed as uncommitted and unworthy investments, which will improve equality within the senior levels of commercial law firms.

To conclude, to deconstruct the factors of the glass ceiling, the conservative structure must be revolutionarily challenged through changing the physical corporate structure, and meritocratic attitudes within it. Prohibiting NDAs will change the male-centric corporate structure, and women will be free to speak out and evoke systemic change, and also be supported by greater workplace education to change attitudes towards sexual harassment and increase support. Gender stereotypes can be removed by addressing attitudes towards women as being child-raisers through introducing flexible working programmes to equalise child-raising burdens, and changing the corporate structure through quotas, which will redistribute power. Biased mentoring can be addressed through specialised mentoring programmes to prepare women for promotion, increase confidence, and allow women to deconstruct male-centric attitudes. While it will be difficult to implement these changes, they are in line with the radical feminist conclusion that revolutionary change is needed to remove meritocracy and male-centric structures that remain despite current affirmative action. If implemented, these changes will prevent social inequality, allowing for more women to be promoted to senior positions within commercial law firms.








Posted 07/03/2023 By Sarah Beckett


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