On International Women’s Day 2018, Philippa Cunniff, partner and head of family law at Gilson Gray LLP, shares her experiences as a woman in the legal profession.
SLN: What hurdles have you faced in the profession?
At the time I started my traineeship in the late 1990s, the profession was still very much dominated by men though the tide was starting to turn in terms of the numbers of female entrants emerging.
I recall it being spoken about quite openly that firms would rather employ a male trainee than a female one.
I have been fortunate to have worked for firms which were fairly progressive, though the fact that I was a partner before having children was undoubtedly to my advantage.
That said, I was headhunted from one large firm to another when I was pregnant with my second child, the firm having taken the view that having identified me as the best person for the job, they wanted me irrespective of a period of maternity leave fairly soon after my arrival.
I can’t honestly say that I have faced hurdles on the basis of gender as such, but I did feel under pressure to return to work very quickly after having both of my children – something I would not recommend to others.
SLN: Any issues of sexism?
As a young female solicitor, there were certainly occasions where inappropriate comments were made, often at professional ‘networking’ events.
At that time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to have complained about the issue whereas if I were to now hear similar comments made to one of the solicitors working for me, I would certainly do something about it.
After being promoted to a senior level at a relatively young age, I recall being taken aback on hearing suggestions that my elevation to partner might have been based on something other than the fact that I was pretty good at what I did.
Such untrue comments were hurtful at the time, not least because male peers who were promoted to partner at a similar point in their career were assumed to be ‘stars’ who were obviously exceptionally good! That was pretty galling.
SLN: Did being a woman impact on your progress?
No, though I was fortunate to be made a partner at a fairly early stage of my career, so by the time I had children, I was already at a fairly senior level.
I know from the experiences of friends and peers who were at a more junior level when they had children that they feel quite strongly that this impacted on their progress
SLN: How do you think the profession is going to be shaped by the fact women outnumber men?
I think that the shift towards a more female-oriented profession has already had an impact.
I think that in the past, there has been a perception that if you are not physically in the office at least 9-5, five days a week, and ideally beyond that, you are not ‘doing the job’.
More flexible ways of working are much more common now and while the often talked about ‘work/life balance’ remains elusive for most of us, I think there is a better understanding that you can still be a good and dedicated lawyer and pick your kids up from school once or twice a week.
I don’t think this is solely because of the shift towards more women in the legal profession though – many of the men with whom I work share equally with their spouses and partners the child-caring responsibilities and that is something which is very much supported by my employers, Gilson Gray.
I am just as likely to see a male colleague rushing off to collect a child from nursery or after school club as I am a female colleague.
I also think it’s important not only to focus on those with child-care responsibilities – there may be other demands on time, such as caring for elderly parents.
It is also evident that the junior solicitors coming through the ranks now prioritise balance much more than might have been the case fifteen years ago.
SLN: Do you agree with positive discrimination?
This is something I struggle with – as a basic principle, I think that opportunities should be awarded on merit.
That said, the principle only works if everyone starts on a level playing field and that isn’t always the case.
That being so, I think that the priority has to be to try to level out the playing field so that issues of gender bias, or indeed any other bias are tackled.
SLN: Do you think there should be resources for boys who are being left behind too?
Absolutely – again, it comes back to the concept of trying to level the field for everyone – put simply there are too many social factors inhibiting the life chances of too many children.