17 Feb 2020

Sexist remarks remain commonplace within UK legal profession, survey finds

A majority of women say they or colleagues have experienced inappropriate comments about their gender by men at work

Sexist remarks remain commonplace within UK legal profession, survey finds

The First 100 Years founder Dana Denis-Smith

Some 58% of women in the UK legal profession have either been subjected to inappropriate comments from male colleagues about their gender or are aware of it happening to someone else, a major survey has revealed.

And nearly half (46%) the 700 solicitors, barristers and other women working in the legal profession who took part in the poll said either they or a colleague had not complained about discrimination for fear of it impacting their careers.

The survey was conducted by gender equality campaign group The First 100 Years which has called for the establishment of a profession-wide taskforce to tackle the profession’s lack of diversity.

Only 2% of the survey respondents said they felt there was true equality within the legal profession and 80% said they felt it would take 80 years or more to achieve equality while 32% said it would take 100 years, given the current rate of progress.

According to The First 100 Years, women at all levels of experience expressed concerns about gender discrimination with 52% agreeing that it is still easier for men in their organisations to achieve a promotion than it is for women.

'Women in my workplace are routinely discriminated against, harassed and then forced into silence if they complain,' stated one law firm associate. 'Diversity and ‘women’s initiatives’ are PR orientated – my firm is a supposed leader in these areas on paper, but it is a completely different story in practice.'

‘Gender discrimination is rife,’ said a partner. ‘The ‘boys’ network’ remains in full force, excluding women from networking opportunities and bullying them so that they feel inadequate and incapable.’

While 54% of the respondents reported having received encouragement from senior women colleagues, 28% said they had considered leaving their job due to a lack of flexible working, 39% said their working hours were incompatible with family life and the majority (60%) believed that working part-time would adversely impact their career prospects.

One partner said: ‘We are overlooked for promotion as we often don’t have the time for self-promotion and are penalised for a perceived lack of presence.’

While the survey did uncover evidence of successful initiatives to promote diversity, with one partner at a national firm praising it for supporting her route to partnership while working part time, The First 100 Years founder Dana Denis-Smith said progress was proving “stubbornly slow”.

“Quotas are necessary,” she said. “Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far. I believe change sometimes needs to be forced.

“I would like to see all parts of the legal profession coming together to work on this diversity problem. We need the legal regulators along with the Bar Council, Law Society and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives to form a profession-wide taskforce to come up with solutions that tackle it head on.”

Research published by campaign group Diversity Lab's Move the Needle Fund has found that while law school graduating classes in the US are approximately 50% women, 33% racial and ethnic minorities and 6% LGBTQ+, the current make up of equity partners in most large law firms is 21%, 9% and 2% respectively.

Further reading on diversity and inclusion

Novartis to withhold fees from legal advisers who miss diversity targets

Five US law firms commit to spending $5m on collaborative diversity 'lab'

UK lawyers celebrate 100th anniversary of law granting women access to profession

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