Marc Tobias – Managing Director, DMJ Recruitment
Battling Uphill – Gender Inequality in Senior Legal Positions: Part two of three
This is the second of three articles exploring the gender disparities between men and women at senior levels of commercial law firms. The first delved into the perspectives of liberal and radical feminism and explained that despite the legal equality in place today, why gender disparities clearly still remain.
Academics explain that female lawyers’ careers are hindered by a ‘glass ceiling’ formed by gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and biased mentoring. These factors reflect the male-oriented ideology and combine to prevent women from progressing their careers, causing gender disparity. Let’s look at each in more detail.
Academics have found an expectation on women to take on disproportionate levels of parenting responsibilities, which detrimentally impacts career progression. Female lawyers are unfairly deemed insufficiently committed to law firms because of their parental responsibilities, despite modern technology that enables working from home. It’s been highlighted that after having a baby, women often have to ‘go around the firm and make their business case again’ for senior promotions, and still are frequently promoted to counsel rather than partner. However, many women still attempt to balance both family commitments and career progression, and indeed, only 4% of millennial women state family as the reason for leaving their occupation. Yet, a Silver Circle Law Firm Chair has stated that women who don’t ‘opt out’ themselves are still opted out of progression opportunities. It’s hopeful that the rise in remote working lessens the hinderance on woman balancing their career and families although this hasn’t been the case so far.
Two-thirds of female lawyers have experienced workplace sexual harassment, 51% on multiple occasions, whilst the International Bar Association (IBA) suspect that around 75% of sexual harassment cases go unreported, partially due to fear of it affecting women’s careers. Women lawyers are reportedly six times more likely to be sexually harassed than male lawyers, and sexual harassment within the UK legal system is concerningly higher than international averages.
The effects of sexual harassment are highly damaging with 37% of women who have been sexually harassed reported that it disrupted their career advancement and evidence suggesting that 90% of women who experience sexual violence suffer acute stress, which can develop into PTSD. Women may find the working environment hostile, which indirectly pressures them to leave, or the emotional distress makes them unable to do their job well highlighting the damaging psychological effects. With so many female lawyers harassed, it’s easy to see how promising legal careers have been derailed by the unprofessional conduct of their male counterparts.
Academics demonstrate that female lawyers are not considered worthy of training and mentoring investments because they are not deemed committed enough leading to rational decision-makers within the firm systematically preferring male associates. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the lack of faith translates to women’s confidence. Evidence suggests that women often follow what other women in the firm have done before them, demonstrating the necessity of altering the conservative structure of commercial law firms to better mentor women.
Current affirmative action
One way that firms are attempting to improve gender equality is through gender targets at partner level. One Magic Circle firm target 30% female partnership candidates, and one international firm have pledged a workforce of 40% men, 40% women and 20% flexible by 2025. These should guarantee change to the gender makeup of the senior levels of commercial law firms. However, targets do not address intersectional gender inequality nor the differences between salaried and equity partners as firms can easily continue to reserve equity partner positions for men, whilst presenting an image of progression towards equality. What’s more, it cannot guarantee that the attitudes of the wealthy, powerful men at the top would change as targets don’t teach people about the unconscious masculine realities that underlie today’s corporate culture. Targeting equality at the top levels may treat symptom but not the disease itself.
Firms are attempting to counteract this through unconscious bias training, targeting an individual’s ingrained worldviews and ‘unconscious cognitive shortcuts’ to encourage equal opportunities for female lawyers and various minority groups. However, only 11% of firms currently offer the training to allow employees to identify and correct biases, blunting its effectiveness, which is already questionable. Evidence suggests that unconscious bias training does not aim to reduce explicit bias, such as sexual harassment, biased mentoring decisions or gender stereotypes, and those that do have a small effect, if any.
Women, therefore, are clearly less likely to be promoted to senior positions than men due to the glass ceiling created by sexual harassment, biased mentoring and gender stereotypes. The current affirmative action taken by law firms does little to tackle the conservative structure of law firms; gender targets fail to address the nuances of partner types and intersectionality, and male-centric attitudes, and unconscious bias training fails to address the explicit bias that contributes to the glass ceiling.
The final article will examine how gender inequality in senior positions of law firms could be effectively overcome.