International Women’s Day: Law and gender parity

This year’s International Women’s Day (8th March) again celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. It is a global effort, but also a good opportunity to reflect upon the legal profession’s progress in furthering gender equality here in the UK workplace.

And there is good news. The Law Society has just published figures showing that a third of law firms in England and Wales are now majority owned by women. That means that 34% of the 9,403 law firms here have more female partners than male – a number that far outstrips the 21% of SMEs across the country that are similarly majority owned by women.

This is a significant achievement that goes beyond the figures. This shows that these firms have gone beyond the basics to develop a workplace that allows women to prosper – whether they choose to have children or not. To make it to partnership, many women will be juggling childcare responsibilities with work. Some will choose to work part-time or flexibly to achieve a balance. Those firms that can accommodate these needs are those that are included in these figures.

Sacker & Partners is just such an example. The majority (60%) of its partners are female and the majority are also working parents. A third of the firm’s staff work flexibly, including 40% of the partners, 30% of the associates and 29% of business services staff. The firm also goes out of its way to support working mothers, jointly winning the Cityparents Best for All Stages of Motherhood award in 2016. This is how it has achieved its impressive numbers of female partners – by responding to their working needs as both committed lawyers and Mothers.

Does this mean that all is on track in law in terms of gender equality? Unfortunately not. Research according to The Lawyer shows that just nine firms in the UK top 200 have a majority of female partners, and the proportion of female partners at the UK’s top 100 firms has lingered around 22% for over five years to 2016. That’s despite many firms introducing targets to improve female partnership levels.

This goes to show that targets are not enough. It’s the processes behind the objectives that need addressing – namely, creating an environment that encourages talented women to remain with their firms through parenthood and beyond. Talking up flexible working initiatives is one important step. But actually implementing flexibility firm-wide remains the challenge that many firms (particularly larger ones) still struggle to achieve.

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect upon the great strides law firms have taken to support talented women. It is also a timely reminder that there is more to be done to ensure that firms don’t continue to waste the huge potential that comes from their female workforce.

Agile, Flexible working, Working mums, international womens day

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