12 Sep 2022

‘We are still stuck with many women leaving the profession early’

Former Simmons & Simmons senior partner Dame Janet Gaymer discusses her life and career in the legal profession ahead of judging GLP’s first Women and Diversity in Law Awards

Dame Janet Gaymer Image courtesy of Dame Janet Gaymer

Former Simmons & Simmons senior partner Dame Janet Gaymer talks about the challenges of becoming the first female senior partner at a top 10 international firm, in the latest in a series of interviews with the judges of Global Legal Post's inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards

 “I joined Simmons & Simmons out of university in 1971, and there were very, very few women back then. To give you a flavour of the time, when I applied for articles, there was one firm that declined to even give me an interview because I was female. When I was accepted at Simmons & Simmons, I was told I couldn’t do company law because that was not considered appropriate for a woman. It didn’t matter anyway because I discovered employment law. There just happened to be a case coming in and no one knew anything about employment law at the time because it was just emerging, and so they gave it to me. I became a partner in 1977 and this coincided with being pregnant with my first child—which a senior partner at the time described as being most inconsiderate. This was a new experience for the firm, but because I was an employment lawyer, I was able to write my own maternity policy.

I was elected senior partner in 2001, which came as a great surprise. I was the first female senior partner of an international top 10 law firm. One of the interesting things about being senior partner was that people would ask me what I was going to do for the women. And I soon discovered that while obviously I was conscious of the fact that women have different struggles and different challenges, I was leading a firm, and I always had to say I’m leading Simmons & Simmons, I’m not leading the women in Simmons & Simmons. But I did what I could while I was senior partner to alleviate some of the challenges women face. Being senior partner demonstrated that it was doable for a woman. People would come up and say, you realise you’re a role model—but I didn’t see myself like that. I found that quite difficult because I knew that to an extent I was paving the way, and that’s quite a responsibility—you don’t want to put a foot wrong. The lesson for me from the experience was don’t be afraid to move out of your comfort zone. Women are not good at pushing themselves forward if it is out of their comfort zone. I wouldn’t have stood for election as senior partner had it not been for my predecessor coming into my office and physically writing my application for election on the computer and asking me to send it.

I’ve been looking at diversity now for more than 40 years and I’ve seen so many initiatives come and go. Often employers have felt they needed to do something, so they will launch a new initiative, but they’re like shooting stars—you see them but then they disappear, they’re not followed through. The danger then is that you get initiative fatigue. There are more women coming into the profession now, but we are still stuck with many women leaving the profession early. It is actually very difficult to do something that is going to move the dial on diversity and inclusion and which will stick. We are seeing more women moving into leadership positions though and it is wonderful that there is now more than one female senior partner and more than one female managing partner. I’m sure it will keep on getting better, but progress is still slow.”

The Women and Diversity in Law Awards is the Global Legal Post's celebration of those making the UK legal sector more diverse and inclusive. The event will take take place in London on 22 March 2023 and making a nomination could not be simpler - you can find more details here

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