There is much of interest in the Society’s Profile of the Profession survey, published today. In some ways there are few surprises, since there have been no major shifts in the figures as compared with the previous similar surveys carried out in recent years. But taken with the messages delivered at today’s launch event, proposing a less passive and more proactive attitude to achieving a more equal gender balance in senior positions, there is a good deal of material that should make today’s practice leaders pause for thought.
Why is it, for example, that although it is a good number of years now since the number of women law graduates approached and then passed that of men, when one looks at the figures in the survey report for those with, say, 11-20 years’ qualified experience – in which band the number of male and female respondents to the survey is about equal – men are more likely to be equity partners whereas women tend to be still at associate/senior associate level? Likewise, why is it that “extensive differences are found” at 21-30 years? If the answer is predominantly childcare related, one might expect the gap to close again at more senior stages, as women return to fuller time working.
Granted, a higher proportion of women claim not to have ambitions to partnership, for various reasons – but that does not account for the relatively small number who actually make it.
And if all legal firms took seriously the message promoted today by Dr Suzanne Doyle Morris of the InclusIQ (pronounced “Inclusik”) Institute, they would probably be going out of their way to increase female representation at the top level.It is well documented, she maintained, that better gender balance at the top level directly correlates to better financial performance at the bottom line. Why should that be? Quite simply, that a more heterogeneous decision making body means a broader infusion of ideas, or if you like, a less hidebound approach.
It is not simply a case, she added, of re-examining your appointment and career development systems to remove unintended bias, important though that is. You also have to stop thinking of flexible working as something designed only for those with childcare responsibilities. Why should others, men and women, not equally value the ability to vary their hours a bit? Why should it often be assumed that a woman is leaving for “lifestyle reasons”, when her employing firm may simply not be offering her the opportunity to work in a way that better suits her own circumstances? And why should be assumed that, even if the client comes first, that requires solicitors to be in the office or otherwise on call, round the clock? Especially if, as Dr Doyle Morris pointed out, the senior in-house counsel at the corporate client may well be a woman, interested in how her legal advisers also treat women.
As her interview in next month’s Journal reveals, Dr Doyle Morris in fact argues that true gender equality will not be achieved as long as women are seen as the primary carers of children – a notion that, she adds, is already being undermined by the number of men whose partners happen to be in better paid positions and who therefore find it the sensible thing to accept that role for themselves during the critical years for the children. Different people have different desires in that respect, of course, and one wonders when, if ever, we will see that belief eradicated – but perhaps it is stereotyping assumptions in individual cases that need to be the real target.
The survey, of course, covered much more, including the pay gap still prevalent at more than 10 years’ experience, and the one in six solicitors who claim to have been the victim of discrimination on one or more occasions in their career: reminders that, despite the profession’s prized core values, positive action is still needed for its own employees to be accorded the justice it purports to pursue on behalf of its clients. But perhaps if we manage to achieve this key aspect of equal opportunity as between the genders, comparable results in future surveys will show a dramatic change for the better.