I want to see a profession where the contributions of all lawyers are valued equally.
There will be people reading this who wonder why we need an International Women’s Day. The profession has changed dramatically since I qualified in 1994: then I was frequently the only woman in meetings, but now that’s much rarer. It’s also the case that when there’s only one man in a meeting, they no longer feel obliged to comment on that.
There are now many more women at senior levels in law firms and in-house, and any large law firm where fewer than 20% of the partners are women seems obliged to explain that they feel this is a problem which they are dealing with. Reports in the press chime with anecdotes – I saw a senior partner’s attitude to part-time working requests change dramatically when his daughter, a solicitor in another firm, got married and started a family. At my firm, Wedlake Bell, the percentage of women lawyers at the various stages of the profession matches the percentage when that cohort left law school, critically including at equity partner and board level.
So should we congratulate ourselves on a barrier overcome, and move on to other issues: ethnic minority lawyers, social mobility, sexual diversity? It would be wrong to ignore the issues faced by lawyers who are not white, straight and from a middle-class background, that’s for sure. It would also be wrong if we fail to acknowledge the hundreds of unseen battles women have quietly fought and won which add up to the progress so far.
Yet there is more to be done on gender equality: I’m not sure that a profession where I am free to behave exactly like a man (with the choice of wearing a skirt) is equal enough. It’s noticeable how many of the senior women in the very large firms are either child-free or have simply swapped the traditional gender stereotype roles with their husbands.
Achievements which were barely dreamt of 20 years ago are now no longer enough. The lifestyle of not seeing one’s family all week and often not at weekends does little to stop younger women - and men - leaving a firm or even the profession. I think this is the case even for those with no desire to have as many children as Jamie Oliver or even any children at all: millennials have very different expectations of work and life to baby boomers.
Indeed, women have more choice than men in some ways. A man has to be brave to work part-time, yet men are parents too. In truth I don’t want a profession where women can be - have to be - the same as men. I’m after a profession where the contributions of all lawyers are valued equally, though they may be different. A former colleague of mine is a part-time lawyer based in Ibiza; awesome DJ in the summer, ace property locum in the winter. Sometimes people tell me that the profession can only reflect our society and its ills, not change it. I smile, and nod, and think that they lack ambition.
And do you know what? I’m incurably optimistic about the potential for change for good. When I started my training contract, no lawyer would think of having a word processor on their desk, now we can hardly conceive of not being always connected and available through devices of various kinds. Technology has enabled working patterns which have been a real boon to me as a working parent, and I’m sure those developments will continue to help.
If you’re doing all your work on the other end of a computer, who will know if Chris Smith is a Christopher or a Christine? Or come to that, be able to tell the colour of Chris’s skin? But the greatest source of my hope is the support I’ve had from men, over many years. These men know that equality for women is not an issue for women, it’s an issue for the whole profession. Maybe (like that senior partner) they only 'get it' when their first grandchild is about to arrive, but better then than never. Solicitors are part of society and can help to change it, one step at a time.
Lean in? That’s part of the answer but not all of it. Rather, #beboldforchange.
Suzanne Gill is a partner in Wedlake Bell LLP writing in a personal capacity