It’s increasingly hard to argue that the low number of women partners in law firms is a ‘legacy’ issue, argues associate Eleanor Hassani.
On US presidential election night Hillary Clinton chose to set up camp in the Javits Center in Manhattan so that she could, symbolically, declare victory under a glass ceiling. Clinton was, on paper, exceptionally well qualified for the role – a capable lawyer with direct experience of statecraft and a clear programme.
In contrast, Donald Trump appeared grossly underqualified, having never held a political office, and many of his policies have been criticised as unworkable. His misogynistic comments about women were widely publicised.
Despite this, and more, Trump won the day – a prompt to look at our own field of the legal profession.
The figures suggest that, in law firms as in US politics, women are struggling to reach the top positions. The Law Society Annual Statistics Report 2015 records that men make up 72% of partners and the number of female partners has risen from 24% to 28% in the past 10 years.
However, the numbers suggest that when it comes to initial recruitment, women are not at a disadvantage; they made up 68% of trainees and 61% of solicitors entering the profession in 2015.
A common view amongst many junior female lawyers is that it is harder to make partner if you are female. There is a perception that women are required to actively demonstrate their commitment to reaching the top, whereas for men this is more readily assumed. Although this may be alluded to amongst peers, it is rarely discussed more formally within the workplace.
Whether this perception is right or wrong, the numbers above do nothing to dispel it. It makes sense to look at the reasons for the disparity between the number of female lawyers recruited and those reaching partnership.
The disparity in numbers could be due to a number of factors – women are often the primary caretakers of children and/or other family members. A number of women take maternity leave in order to raise children, which may interrupt progression.
Alternatively, they may seek work outside of private practice, in-house at private companies or at public bodies, where the hours may be more regular. If so, firms may be able to counteract this by putting in place flexible working arrangements to alleviate any disadvantage faced by women seeking to make partnership.
Law firms should also be aware of unconscious bias, i.e. a bias that individuals are unaware of, which happens automatically and is outside of their control. It is much harder to address unconscious bias than active discrimination, as people may not even be aware of their biases. A number of companies have recognised this issue and are providing training to staff to enable them to recognise such biases and address them; however, many law firms have not yet taken such steps.
In addition, as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook has pointed out in her book Lean In, women may be less inclined towards taking risks at work than men. They may turn down opportunities involving unfamiliar challenges because of a fear of failure. In other words, we need to learn from women like Clinton who are willing to take risks, even if these may not always pay off. Sandberg says that women need to 'grab for leadership roles even if [they] are only 60% certain [they] have the credentials for that step – because after all, that is what men do'.
Equally, it may be that the figures are partly a legacy resulting from the fact that in the past, relatively fewer women entered the profession. If so, the numbers may even out over the coming years, so that eventually women are equally represented at the highest echelons, as they now are at the junior end of the law.
However, it is not enough simply to hope that this will be the case. Lawyers, and particularly women, need to address this collectively and openly in order to bring about change.
The issue is that only a minority of women make it to partnership positions in law firms, and therefore there are relatively few females in top positions who are well placed to do this. In addition, those women who do make partnership may be concerned about being perceived as troublemakers for speaking up about such issues publicly.
This is not to say that it is only women care about this issue – many men in law recognise that more needs to be done to address inequality at the top of the profession. However, women in partnership roles are uniquely placed in that they are able to both speak out to engender progress and simultaneously inspire more junior female lawyers.
The only way to guarantee change is by openly recognising and collectively acting to address the issue. Until this happens the glass ceiling at law firms, as in US politics, may well stay intact.
Eleanor Hassani is an associate at Memery Crystal