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Women lawyers face common challenges around the world, says report

20 June 2019

Despite a few contextual differences, the challenges and experiences of female lawyers are very similar across the globe, a report from the Law Society of England and Wales has found.

Advocating for Change: Transforming the future of the legal profession through greater gender equality brings together findings from a global survey with 7,781 respondents and 34 International Women in Law (IWIL) roundtables involving 712 women lawyers around the world between July 2018 and April 2019.

The survey identified the perceived and concrete barriers in the career progression of women in the law. It highlighted a number of key challenges:

Half of respondents thought there had been progress on gender equality over the last five years. However, there was a large disparity in perception by gender, with 74% of men reporting progress in gender equality compared to 48% of women.

52% of respondents felt unconscious bias was the main barrier to women's career progression in law. Just 11% said unconscious bias training was consistently carried out in their organisation.

49% of respondents reported an unacceptable work/life balance as the second top reason for preventing women progressing and reaching senior levels.

46% of respondents pointed to traditional network routes to promotion as the third main barrier, since these are mostly male oriented.

91% of respondents felt that a flexible working culture is critical to improving diversity in the legal profession.

41% of respondents felt they had benefitted from regular performance and development reviews, and 43% reported having consistent diversity and inclusion training.

The survey also found that 60% of 6,533 individuals who responded to the gender pay gap section of the survey reported that they were aware of a gender pay gap within their organisation.

Solutions

Looking at solutions, the report says tackling gender inequality requires a multi-pronged approach.

"Combined with initiatives such as training, public awareness campaigns, engaging male champions for change, policy and legislative reform, the IWIL roundtable methodology can help to facilitate the conditions for tackling gender inequality, bringing women together in solidarity to netywork and share practical solutions," the report says.

"Bar associations and law societies can also play a fundamental role in encouraging their members to adopt and implement policies that tackle gender inequality, address unconscious and conscious bias, promote flexible working, and improve work-life balance that benefits all.

"These professional organisations have the authority, resources, and gravitas to catalyse and support changes within their own jurisdictions, including training the new generation of lawyers to be aware and to actively counter gender inequality at every level and in all areas of the profession."

The report makes a number of recommendations on practical solutions that can be applied in any jurisdiction:

Men as champions for change: As the obstacles and barriers faced by women are not always well known or understood by their male colleagues, 'Male Champions for Change' roundtables are recommended. Men and male leaders particularly can be encouraged to be agents for change in actions such as refusing to participate in all-male panels, reviewing working practices and ensuring that equal numbers of both male and female candidates are considered for all significant opportunities.

Zero tolerance for sexual harassment: As a profession which strives to uphold justice, the legal sector needs to be at the forefront of the fight against sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women supporting other women: Roundtable participants consistently cited the problem of women not promoting and supporting each other. There is a pressing need for this to change.

Targets and quotas: A quota or target-based system could help to re-balance the existing inequality and bring changes in mindsets.

Values-based business and development: Transparency, communication and trust are important for employees alongside the ability to speak honestly and openly within organisations for ensuring that all staff feel valued and preventing a culture of silence.

Leading from the top and by example: If leaders can demonstrate their support for strategies that develop inclusive workplaces, best practices will be more easily adopted including increasing accountability in the business.

Recruitment and selection processes: Law firms, business and in-house legal teams should be committed to making decisions purely on competencies, quality and attributes of the individuals involved. This should ensure that recruitment and selection policy and practice does not adversely impact on any specific group(s) of candidates.

New Zealand inputs

There were two roundtables in New Zealand, in Auckland and Wellington, each with 20 attendees. These were hosted by the New Zealand Law Society. Another roundtable was held in Australia.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019