Less than half of women lawyers believe measures to reduce gender inequality are effective

While hybrid and part-time working are now the norm, survey uncovers need for more practical support for women
Sexist remarks remain commonplace within UK legal profession, survey finds

Next 100 Years founder Dana Denis-Smith

While the majority of women lawyers now believe their firms are genuinely committed to achieving gender equality, there is scepticism over the effectiveness of the measures they are taking to achieve this goal.

That is the headline finding of a survey by UK campaign group Next 100 Years of more than 200 female legal professionals, which is published today. While 67% of the respondents believe their workplace is committed to removing barriers to women’s career progress, just 45% feel current measures being taken are effective.

Most of the respondents’ organisations do now offer remote or hybrid working (88%) and part-time working (68%), policies regarded effective by those who took part in the survey. However, the survey uncovers concerns around work allocation for those taking up these opportunities, while the research found that firms need to provide more practical support to women. 

Mentoring and coaching schemes were offered by less than half of organisations (46%) but considered effective by 79% of the respondents, while just 32% of employers offered flexitime despite the fact that 79% of respondents considered it effective.

Only 20% of organisations offer additional support for maternity returners, a service considered by 72% of respondents to be effective. Women’s networks are operated by 39% of organisations, but deemed effective by 69% of respondents. Other measures backed by respondents which were provided by relatively few organisations included financial support for childcare (offered by 5% of organsiations), gender-diverse client teams (12%) and enhanced paternity leave (22%).

External diversity pledges were the least popular measure commonly adopted by law firms, with only 36% of respondents considering them effective. 

While women welcomed hybrid and part-time working, the survey uncovered fears that it adversely affects career advancement. Just 54% of respondents were confident that work was allocated fairly between men and women, while 20% believed it was not. More than half the respondents felt part-time working was detrimental to work allocations, while just over a third felt working from home could hinder careers.

Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support and founder of Next 100 Years, said: “We have made real progress – the profession knows it must tackle gender inequality and the normalisation of hybrid working has been a positive step. Although there are outliers, the majority of women lawyers are working for organisations that want to see them succeed and are bringing in measures to remove any barriers.”

She pointed to the survey findings as evidence that law firms need to prioritise “practical help with childcare, more truly flexible working options, targeted support for returners and wider uptake of mentoring and coaching schemes or networks.” 

She added: “A worrying element of the research is that despite the obvious benefits, many women feel that more flexible working patterns limit their opportunities and that as a result, they may be missing out on the ‘best’ work. The profession must work harder when it comes to being transparent about work allocation, promotions and recruitment, making sure that there is a level playing field that doesn’t disadvantage those juggling caring commitments.”

Law Society president Lubna Shuja agreed. “Women continue to experience an unfair allocation of work, have unacceptable work-life balances, unfavourable promotion structures and a lack of visible senior women role models,” she said.

“As a result, the profession is losing brilliant solicitors who have much to offer senior leadership and the profession because they are being prevented from reaching their full potential.”

Shuja highlighted positive progress, ranging from detailed pay gap data analysis, publishing further data on partner pay, taking action on ensuring gender diversity of any newly appointed partners and creating action plans to address inequality. 

Nina Goswami, UK head of inclusion at Clifford Chance, noted that the findings substantiated recent Legal Services Board research, highlighting “the need to move our conversations and actions from pure equality to equity.”

“We are not all the same, so the support we need to be our best selves at work may differ. It is why Clifford Chance consciously provides a wide range of support – from those outlined in Next 100’s research to others such as emergency child and elder care. It means our colleagues are more likely to find what they need to thrive in and outside the workplace.”

Margaret Campbell, EMEA chair of Reed Smith’s Women’s Initiative Network (WINRS), said: “These survey findings underline just how important it is for law firms to effect robust initiatives to support women’s career development. It is important to measure the success of these initiatives and adapt them where necessary to ensure they do work.”

Dana Denis-Smith and Nina Goswami were judges for the Women and Diversity in Law Awards, which are hosted by The Global Legal Post and took place in London on 21 March. Click here for more details. Nominations for next year's awards will open in September.

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