Time to make some big changes for women in law

Meena Bahanda

Meena Bahanda, principal consultant (legal) at HRC Recruitment, looks the employment hurdles women still face in the legal profession.

The last 12 months have seen a tide of change. The anniversary of 100 years of female suffrage and the Time’s Up movement have brought the way women are treated in all walks of life firmly under the spotlight. In many cases, they’ve even given voices to females who would otherwise have remained silent, while highlighting the huge inequalities and abuses to which women are subjected, even in this day and age.

These events have touched women in a number of other ways, particularly the psyche of “normal” working females and how they are viewed. The modern working woman is now seen to be a number of positive things: a go-getter, a multi-tasker, a hard worker – after all, the analogy of the glass ceiling suggests that women have had to work twice as hard to get to where they are in the workplace.

Even within the legal profession – an industry that was for centuries seen as male-dominated – there has been a significant shift in attitudes. However, there is still a substantial amount to be accomplished to achieve true gender equality. A Glasgow Caledonian University survey of the legal profession revealed 65.6 per cent of women believed that there was a perception in the industry about the “types” of jobs women would be more suited to; for example, family law rather than corporate.

This could precipitate negative stereotypes for female solicitors looking to pursue a career in a sector of law typically seen as male. A female lawyer may well experience certain attitudes, or a lack of progression, because of the outdated notion that she shouldn’t “be in” this sector at all. Yet, she may also fear that showing ambition or passion may see her labelled as “too aggressive”, despite similar behaviour in men being frequently lauded and admired.

Across Scotland, the gender employment gap stands at 6.8 per cent, while the gender pay gap is 6.2 per cent. The female employment rate in Scotland stands at just 69 per cent - and a large factor in this is insufficient access to childcare. It stands to reason that for many businesses, including law firms, a key way to attract and welcome female employees would be to offer flexible working or childcare initiatives.

From my own experience as a recruiter in the sector, I can vouch for this argument: many women in the legal market have told me they are looking for a better work/life balance. There are a lot of firms which profess to offer compressed or flexible working, but, often, it does not pan out that way in reality – the pressures of the job come first.

The upshot is that many women move into professional support lawyer (PSL) roles, to avoid the typically rigid and unforgiving schedules that are characteristic of legal careers. In some cases, they end up pursuing different occupations altogether, using their transferable skills to find a better work/life balance in other areas.

Of course, as in any discipline, role models have a critical part to play too. Without them, future female solicitors – and those currently in the profession – would not have visible examples that show you can achieve both significant career progression and a more flexible working schedule. Female role models should be championed, otherwise women in law may feel less inclined to pursue the ambitions they once had.

The good news is that we’re getting there: research from the Law Society of Scotland in 2015 showed that, for the first time, the majority of solicitors were female. That will take some time to filter through to senior positions, but it shows that the legal sector is moving in the right direction.

Law has always been seen as a traditional sector – substantial change often takes a lot of time. And while progress has certainly been made on the journey towards gender equality, more has to be done – 2018, the centenary of women’s suffrage, could and should be the year to make that change.