IN CONVERSATION launches in London

This month saw the launch of the First 100 Years’ In Conversation series, which brings together two leading lawyers from across the profession to talk about the key issues surrounding women in law. Our first event posed the question ‘How Can Innovation and Diversity Shape the Legal Profession’.

We were treated to a thought provoking, inspiring and informative conversation with Rosemary Martin, General Counsel at Vodafone, and former Simmons & Simmons senior partner Dame Janet Gaymer. The event was chaired by Catherine Baksi, former barrister and journalist.

A timely discussion

Discussion and debate about the culture of the legal profession feels timely, with the buzzwords equality, diversity and innovation seeming to jut forth from almost every headline in recent months. A recently published Bar Council survey goes some way to demonstrating the astonishing level of sex discrimination which still exists within the sector – for example, although now 48% of solicitors are women, only 24% of women are partners. Women still do not get paid on the same terms as their male counterparts.

Catherine posed the question to Janet and Rosemary whether they think the progress of gender equality in Law is particularly bad, or if it is on a par with other sectors. The question is an interesting one, expanding the debate into wider circles, helping us to garner a better understanding of what wider societal-level cultural changes are needed to shift the attitude towards working women, and more broadly, women in general. Both Janet and Rosemary agreed that many other professions struggle with the issue of gender equality, with Janet commenting that we need only look at other professions like medicine to see sex discrimination just as widespread as that in the legal sector. The only difference, as she pointed out, is that “we’re lawyers, so it is not surprising that we will comment on it”.

As well as discussing present-day gender inequality, Janet and Rosemary shared their stories of moving up the ranks, in a time when sexism was more rampant and readily accepted as part of the culture of the legal profession. Janet’s experience of applying for articles at a certain firm and receiving a rejection letter stating that her application had been declined “because they were prejudiced against female clerks”, and Rosemary’s encounters of innate sexism by being assumed to be the secretary, or consistently expected to make teas and coffees for her colleagues, are a testament to the challenges women have faced in the past. But they are a testament to just how far the legal profession –and indeed all professions – have come.

Gender equality has certainly been a buzz topic for 2015, but it was interesting to listen to how it is not just negative discrimination that our two keynote speakers have faced. When Catherine asks Janet whether she can think of any times in her career where she has had to go the extra mile compared to male colleagues in order to achieve success, she notes that actually, being female was helpful – “people knew me as the female employment lawyer”, which helped to distinguish her from her male competition. Arguably, this just highlights that regardless of personal experience, whether positive, negative, or somewhere in between, gender is never far away from our perceptions, experiences, and understandings of others.

Genders stick with their gender

Likewise, our understanding of gender and the cultural divide between the two sexes can make any attempts at reconciliation problematic. As Rosemary discusses her perceptions on how genders tend to stick with their own, we begin to see how ideas of gender are also interlinked with power, and hierarchy within a professional context. For an older, more professionally senior man to take a young woman out for lunch, Rosemary explains, “we assume bad intentions”. Not only can these kind of gender stereotypes be dangerous and damming for the individuals involved, moreover they make any meaningful cultural changes increasingly difficult.

What can be done to shape the legal profession? The first thing is to keep the women in it

Are the successes of females hindered by the attitudes, language and culture of an organisation even before the application process has begun? The awareness from both Janet and Rosemary about how the process has potential to favour men demonstrates that in order to raise the profile of women in the profession, there needs to be a sustained and fundamental examination of the way professionals are employed. Alongside this lies the issue of family, which appears to crop up in any way of discussion of working women, as women are often the sole caregiver to children. There is an assumption that once a woman starts to raise a family, she will give up her career and become the stay at home mother. So Catherine asks our speakers – do women wave goodbye to partnership if they have children? Or can women really have it at all?

Some of the pearls of wisdom from our speakers were that you can have it all, but your approach needs to be multi-faceted; you have to be physically fit, organised, have a strong and stable support network, and be prepared to fail. These things can all help to make it easier to grit your teeth and keep going when things become difficult.

Most importantly, you must enjoy what you’re doing – if you’re not, is all the juggling worthwhile?

Much of the emphasis when discussing women in law tends to focus on the character strengths of the individual women – be more confident, take the initiative, ‘copy’ male peers’ behaviours and mannerisms in order to get ahead. Of course, this is all very important, but the culture of a profession cannot change without the law changing, too. When Rosemary and Janet are asked whether employment law has helped, they both agree that it has. Although the law has changed attitudes towards women in a positive way, Janet also highlights how women can become to be perceived as a problem, because they’re protected by the law. So, in reality, the attitudes towards women haven’t altered, but in fact women were finally safe-guarded by the law to ensure their presence – albeit small – in the workplace.

There needs to be a two-pronged attack: if you want to change things, you have to change the law. But this needs to be exercised in tandem with an evaluation of the culture which regards women who hold senior positions – indeed, any career position – as in some way surprising, or as possessing traits that are different to the rest of her sex. Rosemary stresses that if you want to change things, you have to change the law.

“Because it is change, it is painful. So let’s make it painful for our generation, not the next”.

In Conversation: How Can Innovation and Diversity Shape the Legal Profession? was hosted by JLL:

At JLL, our women’s network plays an integral part in our diversity campaign and as such, we were truly delighted to partner with First 100 Years, a programme that aims to support, empower and celebrate women, and host the first session in their ‘in conversation’ series. We are committed to ensuring that our company is as diverse and vibrant as the communities we serve. Diversity drives innovation, creativity and promotes a culture that attracts the best talent and the best clients.