Women are often portrayed as being in constant competition with one another, in life and in business. Charlotte Edgar, an associate at CMS and the New Lawyers Representative on our Council, argues it's time we shifted our focus to collaboration and support, so that all women can benefit from the successes of each other.

The lockdowns over the last year have undoubtedly encouraged me to spend more of my free time watching TV than before. Recently, I have been watching some of the classic noughties American drama shows, such as Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls and 90210.

For me, these shows are pure entertainment value and provide a diversion from daily life (especially as you watch people meeting up with friends in coffee shops or going to parties, remembering fondly what that was like).

One of the issues with these TV shows though, and popular culture more generally, is they often portray young women locked in bitter rivalries with each other. The characters are competing for popularity, the best clothes, the opposite sex, school grades, university places and jobs. This raises uncomfortable questions about our culture and the messages that society sends to young women.

Does this portrayal of women in popular culture feed into how women interact with each other in the workplace? Is it true that women have to compete against each other to get ahead and reach their career goals? And is there a problem with women’s competitiveness in the workplace?

These are important questions that require further thought, research and discussion beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to the legal profession, it is widely acknowledged that despite improvements being made and an increased awareness of the issues, we are not gender equal. Unconscious gender bias, lack of equal pay between men and women, and sexual harassment are still live issues experienced by some members of our profession. There is much work to be done.

In the Law Society of Scotland’s Profile of the Profession survey from 2018, an analysis of the most frequently described roles by gender found that 26% of the male survey cohort were equity partners, compared to 7% of women.

Engender’s Sex & Power in Scotland 2020 report highlighted that 22% of Sheriffs and 26.5% of Senators of the College of Justice are female. Both of these percentages have decreased slightly since Engender’s previous survey in 2017.

Could it be a consequence of the inequalities experienced by women in the legal profession that they perceive the need to compete with other women in the workplace? More research is needed into this question.

It is said that fewer places for women in the ‘top spots’, such as managing partner or senior legal counsel, may encourage this competition. For example, I read an article recently that profiled the senior partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, described as “the first woman to lead a magic circle firm”. Whilst this is a great achievement, on reading such news stories, do women perceive there are fewer leadership positions open to them, so they must battle with each other to reach that coveted top spot?

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge – asking how will you help forge a gender equal world?

One of the important ways to do this is to address any perceived competitive culture amongst women in the legal profession by shifting the focus to collaboration. In the future, I would like to see more female members of the profession supporting one another, continuing to celebrate women’s achievements and collaborating together.

If women support each other, a win for one woman is a win for all.

It is important to remember that there is room for more women in senior positions in the profession, so there should be less emphasis on competing with one another and more focus on supporting each other to reach that space.

The statistics of women in senior positions within the legal profession do make for concerning reading. However, there is hope this will improve in future. In 2019/20, the proportion of female trainee solicitors in Scotland was 68%. As a majority of our new lawyers are female, we may be in the early stages of a seismic change in the composition of our profession; a starkly different picture to that of 100 years ago.

I hope in the future more women can progress in their careers to senior leadership roles. The legal profession is viewed as traditionalist and change can happen slowly. So, what can we do now to improve the representation of women at senior levels of the profession?

Here are some easy things to try:

1. Mentor and share knowledge

If you are a senior female member of the profession, you will have lots of valuable experience and hard-won wisdom to share. There is a lot that others can learn from your experiences and, in turn, you will help other women follow the path you have forged. Consider giving some of your time to mentoring. If you are an aspiring or junior member of the profession, find a female legal professional whom you admire and learn about their career journey. Given the technological revolution brought about by Covid-19, it is now much easier to meet for a virtual coffee catch-up and exchange ideas. The Law Society of Scotland runs a successful career mentoring scheme for students, trainees and members of the legal profession. You can find out more details here

2. Encourage other women

We should all give credit and words of encouragement to each other when this is due. A few kind words could be the confidence boost that someone really needs, and also helps create a more supportive and cohesive working environment. It is highly motivating for junior members of the profession to be encouraged by senior women in their workplace, and have a role model or two to look up to. Women in the profession should look out for, and support, each other. For example, being kind and considerate when giving feedback, encouraging each other to apply for promotion, sharing helpful tips on work-life balance, lending a listening ear, and offering assistance to career-break returners as they transition back into working life.

3. Create your own network

You may decide to create a networking group for women within your own place of work, or your social circle. It could be business-focused, or social (such as a running club or book group). In times when our social interactions are limited, maintaining connections with each other is crucial for our wellbeing. An informal women’s’ network could be a positive forum for discussion, as well as sharing opportunities and experiences. Women can challenge any remnants of the “old boys’ club” by focusing on collaboration. Why not create a women’s network that is led by women, and open to all?

4. Attend (virtual) events celebrating women in law

I always feel uplifted and inspired when I attend events showcasing women’s achievements in law. The annual Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association (SYLA) Women in Law event (this year, taking place on 9 March) is the highlight of the year, and is a great opportunity to hear from distinguished female speakers. It is vital to break down any internalised glass ceilings that we may have constructed for ourselves by hearing from other women who have gone out there and achieved career recognition (often whilst balancing family life and raising young children).

If we take these positive steps now, we can nurture equality and shape the legal profession the way we would like it to be.