Is the gender agenda being set for the right reasons?

You could be forgiven for thinking the battle for gender equality in the legal profession was won long ago. It’s almost a century since Carrie Morrison became the first woman admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales, and now two-thirds of practising solicitors under 35 are women. What’s more, that proportion is continuing to grow – every year there are more women than men gaining their legal qualification.

So, does that mean there’s the gender agenda is no longer a problem? Is that tired old image of the legal sector being an ‘old boys’ network’ now well and truly out of date? Well, it would be nice to think so, but let’s not rush to that conclusion. When it comes to senior positions in the legal profession, the picture looks very different.

In 2015, just eight women held senior management roles in the top 50 law firms, and the 2016 PWC Law Firms’ Survey showed that only 18% of full equity partnerships across the sector were held by women.

Those numbers are actually quite shocking; more than 80% of full equity partnerships are held by men in a profession where most of the junior roles are held by women.

What message does that send to women entering the professions? ‘You’re welcome as a solicitor, but forget career progression; the top jobs are for men!’

Where are things going wrong? There seems to be no problem in persuading women to enter law school, and no problem in getting them into law firms. The problem comes later, when these women seem to hit that proverbial glass ceiling.

Other metaphors have been used to describe this phenomenon in the legal profession: a cattle grid, a broken pipeline. Although, let’s be clear, this issue is by no means unique to the law profession. But, however you want to picture it, a disproportionate number of women are getting through.

So, what can be done? Are there any lessons to learn from the rare success stories? The Lawyer looked at the issue of the scarcity of women law firm leaders, and noted the eight female senior managers it identified in 2015 were all propelled – perhaps unsurprisingly – by their drive and confidence in their performance. All were closely involved in the management of their practice areas and showed an active interest in developing their firms’ external and internal profiles.

It’s probably safe to assume the same could be said of most of their male counterparts, but perhaps the women had to be even more driven, more confident, and even more involved in their firms’ profiles? It certainly seems they had to be willing to stand out from the male-dominated crowd. Even if the overtly sexist language and inappropriate behaviour of previous decades have dissipated, it still takes determination and courage to be the lone female in the boardroom.

But we can’t tell all the talented young women in the profession that they need to be even more exceptional and courageous than their male colleagues if they want to progress. We need to redress the balance at the top, as we have done at other levels.

Quotas can offer a quick fix, but are often unpopular and don’t necessarily ensure the most talented are promoted. Targets are better, but how do we reach those targets?

We need to raise women’s expectations and enable them to prepare for progression.

Mentoring has long been cited as hugely important in this respect, and women who have made it to the top are invariably keen to encourage and advise those with ambition to follow them. And they are perfectly placed to do so. Who better to lead the change than those in leadership positions?