Despite the legal profession being more diverse than the professions as a whole, recent statistics demonstrate continuing gender inequality. This may well encourage women to leave their jobs in law, in greater numbers, than their male contemporaries.
Although at associate level 48 per cent of lawyers are female, the figure falls to 28 per cent at partner level. Furthermore, only approximately 9 percent of equity partners are women. In general, female lawyers are paid at approximately 68 per cent the rate of male lawyers, while accruing only half the male level in bonuses.
Added to those uncomfortable figures, perception of institutionalised sexism and ineffective maternity policies is a further reason believed to influence many of the 42 per cent of women that are estimated to leave the profession within nine years of qualification.
Sexism and Maternity in the Legal Profession
Evidence suggests that many women are afraid of speaking up about either sexist comments or family planning insofar as it may affect their career and promotion prospects.
Given the often long hours solicitors, especially in commercial practice, are expected to undertake, the nature of the profession has been seen as traditionally difficult to reconcile with the demands of motherhood. Nevertheless, gender inequality is being tackled by some firms better than others.
Linklaters offers the relatively generous policy, to all non-partner staff, of 26 weeks 100% pay maternity leave, with 13 weeks statutory pay and 12 weeks unpaid leave. Other firms, such as Taylor Wessing, operate flexible work policies for mothers who return from maternity leave. The firm allows employees to work four days a week, while allowing one of those working days to be spent working from home.
In addition, alongside such policies, some firms incentivise lawyers to return to work via post-maternity leave bonuses. Eversheds, for example, pays out a significant ‘return to work’ bonus to any employee who returns to work for at least six months after maternity leave. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer goes one step further and incentivises employees to cut short their maternity leave by paying out, after 26 weeks leave, the remainder of their maternity package in a lump sum.
As such, genuine attempts have been made by parts of the legal profession to eliminate gender inequalities.
The Picture is Improving but Equality in the Legal Profession is a Work in Progress
The state of the legal profession is now a far cry from the 1989 New York Times’ infamous statement that the path to seniority in the law is “limited by the mommy track”.
Despite clear demonstrations of good intention in eradicating gender inequality, there exists plenty of evidence, anecdotal and statistical, of ingrained cultures of sexism within some law firms and chambers. Examples stretch from sexist comments about clothing to preferential treatment being given to men when allocating quality work. Tackling these issues head on is the only way to reduce their effect on women choosing to leave their jobs.
As some of the best and brightest firms increasingly seek to accommodate the best and brightest female lawyers, women are unlikely to stay put where sexism and inequality are still prevalent. Firms that fail to move with the times are therefore doing both their female lawyers and themselves a disservice.
Female lawyers looking to find a more accommodating environment to work in should contact.