Recently, I attended the launch of the Women’s Business Council (WBC) report, which makes some practical recommendations for government and business to increase women’s participation in the workplace. The figures are startling.
By equalising the participation rates of men and women in the labour force, the UK could increase GDP by 0.5% a year, with potential gains of 10% of GDP by 2030. As my background is in law – I was the senior partner in a family law practice in south London – it resonated with me that many aspects of the WBC’s report could and should be adopted to help increase the number of women working in the legal industry.
For the legal services sector there are laws in place, such as the Legal Services Act, to encourage equality and diversity. As part of this, the Legal Services Board now requires firms to publish diversity data.
The government has also introduced legislation to encourage diversity within the judiciary, including for the High Court and above. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 introduces part-time working for the Supreme Court and we are also applying an equal merit provision to judicial appointments, which allows a selection commission to take protected characteristics into account where two applicants are of equal merit for the purposes of increasing judicial diversity.
But new laws are not the only answer – we also need to change the culture. In April 2012, only 35.2% of barristers and just 22.6% of judges were women. We need to work with schools, careers advisers and the profession to improve the careers advice we provide to girls at school, so they have the information they need to broaden their aspirations.
Once in the profession, it is really important that women talk to one another and share their own experiences and tips for climbing the ladder. Many companies recognise the benefits of mentoring.
And then of course comes the challenge of combining work and family responsibility. This remains a massive hurdle for female lawyers. The trick is to keep both family life and career in balance, something that I know is easier said than done.
Some employers are still not fully embracing flexible working. That is despite there being a strong demand for it; 62% of solicitors offered flexible working patterns made use of such arrangements. Flexible and part-time working can help mums and dads stay in the workplace and help businesses retain talented staff.
There is also a lack of quality part-time roles, and this means some women find themselves moving down the occupational ladder into low-skilled and low-paid jobs, where there are few opportunities for progression. There is also the added pressure of expensive childcare and inflexible work patterns. The government is addressing these barriers, to ensure the workplace and, above all, our society matches the needs of women in modern Britain.
We need to encourage and support employers to put the right measures in place but the way to do this is not through legislation or mandatory quotas. The evidence shows that our voluntary approach is working; in the past six months women have come to represent 44% of FTSE board appointments.
We are taking the same approach with Think, Act, Report – a voluntary scheme that encourages companies to think about how to offer equal opportunities for women in the workplace. This approach is driving real change, with more than 100 businesses now supporting the scheme, including Linklaters.
The WBC has highlighted that there is an overwhelming business case, supported by strong evidence, for maximising women’s contribution to growth. Research shows that companies with more diverse boards achieve higher sales and returns.
Helen Grant MP is parliamentary under secretary of state for justice, women and equalities, and minister for victims and the courts