Unconscious bias training 'least effective' in tackling gender inequality in legal profession

Flexible working is 'most popular' and perceived as 'most effective' tool, IBA/LexisNexis study finds

Flexible working and quotas are perceived as potent weapons in the drive to improve gender diversity, while unconscious bias training is regarded as the least effective initiative, according to a report by the International Bar Association and LexisNexis. 

Just 20% of law firms, in-house legal departments and other legal employers who took part in the study believe unconscious bias training to be ‘very effective’ despite the vast majority (80%) deploying it, according to the report 50:50 by 2030: A Longitudinal Study into Gender Disparity in Law.

Despite this, organisations ‘remain committed to continuing with the policy’ of providing unconscious bias training regardless, the report said. 

The least popular means of promoting gender diversity was quota setting — a tool employed by just 8% of participating organisations. It was nonetheless described by 40% of respondents as ‘highly effective’ and by the remaining 60% as ‘somewhat effective’.

Of the initiatives being used to remedy the gender gap, flexible working was the most popular, with 90% of respondents saying their organisation had implemented it. Flexible working was also the initiative perceived to be the most effective and the one in place the longest (6.6 years on average).

The report found that while more than half (51%) of lawyers in the UK are women they only make up 32% of those in senior roles, marking a 19% drop in representation.

Representation of women in senior roles is at its highest in the public sector, where 64% of lawyers were women and 57% of leadership roles were occupied by women. This represents a stark difference from private practice, where exactly half of lawyers were women but at the partnership level or above the proportion was only 31%.

For in-house corporate teams the figures were 59% and 46% respectively, while in barristers’ chambers 32% of lawyers were female, the lowest among all the sectors included in the study. Women in the judiciary made up 43% of all judges and held 26% of senior positions. 

Some 50 law firms, 11 barrister’s chambers, 16 corporates and five government offices participated in the IBA/Lexis Nexis study, which served as a pilot for the IBA’s wider nine-year year project that is set to span sixteen countries and develop a gender policy blueprint to benefit ‘all legal sectors globally’ by 2030. 

In terms of strategic initiatives undertaken to approach gender parity, many respondents chose to prioritise diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their business plans, while others elected to recruit dedicated D&I professionals or create new roles to progress D&I initiatives. 

Law firms including Michelmores, DWF and Allen & Overy have also taken steps to reassess their partner promotions process in order to provide transparency around the selection process, the report said. 

Certain firms including Eversheds Sutherland and Fladgate were also highlighted for their measures related to supporting women ‘to fulfil additional responsibilities without stepping back on their career progression’, which the report identified as a ‘critical aspect’ of achieving gender representation. These initiatives ranged from flexible working arrangements, to supporting working parents and raising awareness around the challenges of the menopause. 

Supporting lawyers from diverse backgrounds has become increasingly important across the profession in recent years as the pandemic brought inequalities faced by diverse groups into sharp relief. A report co-published last year by the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals and the Thomson Reuters Institute revealed that 70% of women lawyers found the pandemic had a negative impact on their well-being compared to 54% of men. 

That study also showed that a greater number of women lawyers and lawyers of colour expressed concern that there is often inconsistency between what firms say they are doing to improve diversity and inclusion and what they actually do.

A report by Thomson Reuters published in November 2020, found that the setting up of women-only networks and reverse mentoring programmes may be unwittingly undermining gender diversity within law firms.

The study – Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 – argued that measures like flexible working that are designed to combat long-established cultural values and practices preventing the career advancement of women are most effective while ‘those that aim to fix femaleness are ineffective at best’.


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