Female lawyers can be helped to progress if their male counterparts take on a bigger role.
I’ve always thought the advice Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has for ambitious women – to ‘lean in’ – is problematic.
Yes, you think, it can be frustrating to see capable, intelligent women dissemble, self-deprecate, pass up chances or apologise for their views – gifting opportunities for advancement to thicker men with thicker skins.
It’s a decent injunction – but I find it unsatisfactory, and for two reasons have recently had to define why.
First, my eldest daughter, 13, says she wants to be a lawyer. She’s got as far as identifying ‘legal aid, criminal defence’ (I’ve not had the heart to break it to her yet about this field – though she could read the Gazettes left in plain view round the house).
Thoughts about the law and her possible future in it come and go in spare moments.
Certainly she’ll need to ‘lean in’, and the large south London girls’ comprehensive she attends is on the case. Some days, she complains, you can’t move for inspirational high-achieving women brought in to urge ambition and confidence on the girls.
But on to reason two.
I’ve accepted an invitation to join a speaker panel for the ‘First Hundred Years of Women in Law’ annual conference this week at Simmons & Simmons – a session titled ‘The role of men in women’s equality: how men have helped, and can continue to help, women in the profession’. Also on the panel are Slaughter and May’s Nigel Boardman and two general counsel.
It’s not unclunky as a title, but it at least it points towards the problem with ‘lean in’ as an apparently complete answer.
‘Lean in’ is self-help, and as with all self-help advice puts all responsibility on the ‘helpee’. All that stands between you and the moon is a good pep talk, delivered by you to yourself.
Not succeeding in your legal career? Must have been a rubbish pep talk you gave yourself.
There are so many problems with this. But let’s look at one particularly big issue for the legal profession – children. When they are ill, need picking up, or shepherding through over-long holidays, who’s taking lead responsibility?
In an overwhelming majority of cases, it’s not a man. Where professional men are ‘involved’ fathers, they very often do drop-offs, not pick-ups. Why? There would seem to be a gap here in the famous male confidence. Yes, you read that right – most fathers lack confidence.
Too often, we remain trapped by the mindset of our early jobs – those jobs where, to misquote Burke, we’re valued for our industry only, not our judgement (and experience).
Taking a bigger role here means men have to lean in a bit. It takes confidence in your own ability and worth to check exactly when a client needs a matter. It takes confidence to insist on better planning and project management – to be open about what you need, and how and when you will therefore get work done.
Otherwise, what’s the argument here, that we’re too important to act with confidence? That’s a truly odd proposition – a very nervous version of being high-flying and ‘indispensible’.
So yes, if my daughter wants a legal career, she’ll have to lean in. And when she does, she’ll have to be deaf to charges that she is ‘pushy’ or ‘bossy’. She’ll likely also need a world where more men step up to the plate. Equality is everyone’s business, and unless that’s accepted, it simply won’t happen.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor