How can the legal sector improve gender representation?

The legal industry may be experiencing technological transformation, but deep-rooted male dominance remains a persistent problem across the profession. While women made up more than half of the legal workforce in 2018, it’s their male counterparts who still occupy the majority of senior roles.

Unaffected by unconscious bias, their route to the top depends entirely on their drive, skill and commitment rather than external factors such as family plans or stereotypes; it is facilitated by existing leaders and the archaic values some still hold to this day. But it isn’t just career progression that is capped by regressive attitudes: according to figures from Lawyer Monthly, women working in UK law firms are on average more likely to be paid less than men, with 78% of companies paying their male lawyers a higher salary.

If the legal sector is to boost gender representation at every level, law firm leaders must take responsibility for making key changes in their practices and policies. This should include:

Improving access to flexible working for all

Thanks to the advent of the digital age, remote working has become a well-accepted practice in the modern business landscape – one that many leaders recognise as being key to encouraging more female entrants to the profession.

Yet, a surprisingly low number of firms today offer flexible working opportunities for both men and women; the attitudes surrounding remote working remain negative on a whole. In turn, would-be parents feel they must sacrifice family plans for career success and ambitious lawyers struggle to find roles that fit around their personal commitments.

Law firms must seek to tackle the unconscious perception that life in the legal sector is incompatible with parenthood; they must actively challenge the status quo of traditional structures to inspire people of all genders to follow their legal sector careers to the top of the ladder, irrespective of their plans for parenthood.

Actively engaging men in the equality debate

Quotas may play a role in guaranteeing culture change by ensuring a certain number of women are hired into the profession, but if they are to improve representation, firms must go further than recruiting by numbers.

Considering men hold proportionately more positions of power and capacity to distribute resources and opportunities, they are uniquely placed to lead the charge on gender equality. Naturally, men’s behaviour can have a profound impact on the professional success of their female colleagues: engaging men in gender initiatives and holding male leaders accountable for change is critical in encouraging balance in the workplace.

It may not be a silver bullet solution in itself, but the role men play in bringing about a shift in organisational cultures and priorities cannot be denied. In order for this to succeed, leaders must frame the issue as a business rather than social issue; they must actively seek to demonstrate the detrimental impact that a lack of equality can have on the bottom line.

This isn’t about asking male partners to wear a t-shirt with a feminist slogan, it’s simply about setting an example as a leader and encouraging all men in the workplace to challenge their peers and calling out sexist behaviours as and when they occur.

Promote staff-wide training

A flurry of appointments may have increased gender representation in the court of appeal, but toxic masculinity continues to plague the profession. According to a recent study conducted by Legal Week, 51% of female respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace on more than one occasion – a startling statistic but one that is not wholly surprising considering the rise in high-profile cases of this nature.

Whether it’s unwanted sexual contact, inappropriate comments or unfair treatment, leaders should prioritise staff-wide training to increase awareness among male employees as to the negative experiences that their female colleagues must face on a daily basis. Culture change is, of course, not something that can be achieved overnight.

However, by prioritising continual learning in this critical area – not just for lawyers, but for partners and senior decision makers – firms will gradually begin to break down the barriers that prevent women from progressing in the sector.