IWD: Speak up now, the time is right

7 March 2018

We’re lucky. We’re a top 100 law firm with a female Managing Partner and female Senior Partner. Over 75% of those who work here are women. More than 50% of the partnership are women. Half the firm’s management team are women. The statistics are good. We are certainly unusual in professional services.

But if you look closer, the picture is a bit surprising. We have 11 practice areas and only two of them currently led by women. That seems strange in a law firm with so many women. There are plenty of female role models here so why? What’s stopping them from taking the leadership role in the area of law that they know the best? This can’t be about ‘merit’ – that’s like saying that the men are just better. What’s going on?

At our firm, it is less about what is going on now (judge us in another few years, as we are about to have another woman, Louise Hodges, as our new Practice Area Leader for Crime next month) and perhaps more about how the law previously attracted so many more men than women. The reverse is now true. In 2006-17 61% of all entrants to the solicitors’ roll were female

Nicola Hill, who is a successful female leader here heading our Regulatory practice area, and has a young daughter, says for her the key has been having a supportive partner at home who has enabled her to juggle family with her career. Yet for many talented women like her, just when her career gets going, there is often a break to have children and getting back on the career track can be difficult.

So the workplace at large is stifling women’s longer term talents because….? That’s how it is, that’s the “lifestyle” choice? It’s no choice.  Not having the right IT to support flexible working? Not being around 24/7 to deal with clients at the right times of day or more specifically, night? This stuff should be easy to sort out but we need to insist on it. We need to have those difficult conversations with each other, our clients even, to reinforce the culture we want inside and outside our businesses. It’s the conversation, speaking about it and finding ways to make it work where we need to be better.  

But, there is something momentous going on right now. Campaigns like #TimesUp are encouraging people to speak about  all sorts of things, particularly in their professional lives – harassment, flexible working, diversity in the broadest sense - and that can be incredibly difficult in the workplace. There’s so much at stake. I think about my niece, who doesn’t really understand what a feminist is but she certainly has an opinion on what’s fair, and gender doesn’t enter that equation. Some think that by the time these girls reach the workplace (my niece is 12) that they won’t have to deal with the out-dated practices, stereotypes and entrenched biases that exist now. I’m not convinced, and it’s not just about the girls.

When my niece and nephew enter the workplace they will have to work alongside people of different generations and I wonder whether, even if they see that things aren’t fair, they will have the courage to speak up and say so, and ask some questions. They are very quick to call out unfairness now (particularly when it relates to each other) but did you have the courage to speak out when you started work? Perhaps in your 20s you were fairly outspoken, holding onto your principles but soon learnt to ‘pick your battles’ and conform. Sensible advice? Perhaps then in your 30s, you’ve been promoted and there’s a lot more at stake now for you financially, personally and professionally. You have learnt that hard work and commitment enable you to get on and you really don’t want to ‘rock the boat’. You have seen how it is: it would be easier to get another vote on Brexit than change the way you do things at your workplace.

Then you reach your 40s and might start to speak out again – you know your place and what you bring to your own organisation now and understand the risks better - but you have become used to things, it’s the norm.   It takes a lot of energy to want to take on extra responsibility and champion change.

And then, you reach your 50s and 60s and you can see that there is tension but the problems are almost intractable and the risks for you to speak out/lead the way even, are huge now.  You don’t want to be seen as trouble because who would want to hire you if you had to leave. Ridiculous? Tell that to those in this age bracket that can’t get an interview.

Keeping quiet is the biggest threat to creating the kind of environment most of us want to work and live in.  Speaking out whenever things aren’t right, or even just could be better, takes a lot of confidence but events like International Women’s Day, and other less positive recent news events, have encouraged us and given us permission to do so. I don’t think those old responses as to why it is too difficult to deal with will cut it for much longer. To slightly misquote a song about the land of dreams: “Be inspired, be bold, these times are the things that dreams are made of”.  For your niece, nephew, son, daughter, sister, brother and for you. I don’t want to wait for the next generation to show us how it should be done. Let’s not let the zeitgeist pass as a blip, a brief glimmer of what might have been. We need to keep hold of it, keep talking about it and do something about it. We have a responsibility to each other, to do something about it now. Keep going, #PressforProgress and if IWD is one of the vehicles to help us get there, well hurrah to that! 

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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