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Getting women and their advocates on-board in law

7 November 2022

Karen Jones

#womenonboardinlaw

 

‘Around half the population of the UK are female’, Kathryn Purkis, Chambers Director at Serle Court, reminded the guests at the BUCKLESconnect & Serle Court Round-Table on 22nd   September 2022. An unremarkable statistic but one with significant implications.

On Thursday, 22nd September 2022, women from all facets of the legal industry came together to discuss getting women and their advocates on-board in law.

Karen Jones, CEO and Editor of Citywealth, opened the conversation with a focus on female worth. ‘Women add 12 trillion to the annual GDP’. ‘Why then’, she questioned, ‘do we still not recognise our value’? She noted that men typically reassess their worth more regularly than women. Karen believes that when approached by a recruiter, a man will usually entertain them and ask for an up-to-date valuation of his services. A woman, Karen said, will not.

It is a defining moment in history, Karen calls for women who have now spent thirty years collectively in professional services and finance, to pass their knowledge onto the next generation of women. When finishing work for the day, a woman should not overcompensate in the household because she feels guilty for having a career. It is seeped into our language that mothers ‘balance’ work and motherhood, whereas historically men simply ‘work’. Karen’s point, which was met with resounding agreement, is that men should ensure they are contributing to unpaid 'work' at home and taking full paternity leave where it is offered to allow for equality. 

Sarah Rushton, Partner at Buckles Solicitors LLP, stated that we should not discuss women in this context as a separate group. For industry leaders, gender balance is simply part and parcel of encouraging talent in the legal sector, and we should push equality for all to optimise work and career performance.

Sarah believes that focusing on opportunities for the BAME community is equally important to the gender issue. If you are a woman and a member of an ethnic minority in the UK, you are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than a white woman.

Sarah reported that female members of the BAME community, and members of the LGBTQ community, sometimes feel that they must hide their identity and dress or speak differently at work to present themselves as more employable. As Head of the Employment team in the Buckles’ London office, Sarah has seen countless employers in legal disputes for failing to cultivate a safe and diverse environment. Sarah reminded the attendees of the roundtable that as a lawyer, you are required by SRA Principle 6 to act in a way that ‘encourages, diversity and inclusion’. This additional layer of responsibility should only further the motivation of employers in the legal sector to diversify the workplace. In order to achieve this, Sarah suggested that business leaders at the very least, create strong diversity and inclusion policies, and most importantly, implement them. Furthermore, employers should be mindful of subconscious bias and stereotypes, especially when considering internal promotions, to avoid employment disputes.

Sarah pointed out that we are experiencing a shortage of workers. In fact, over 50% of UK businesses say that they have been adversely affected due to a worker shortage and a lack of appropriate diversity and inclusion policies could lose employers their new recruits. Serle Court’s Chambers Director, Kathryn Purkis, stated that it is not only imperative for business leaders to create a diverse work environment from a moral standpoint, but pointed out that commercially speaking, it will only benefit them. ‘An all-white male team’, Kathryn suggested, ‘is at risk of thinking homogenously’. Kathryn explained that the more diversity, the greater difference in approach, perspective, and style. When such differences are embraced in decision-making processes, the range of inputs is more likely to produce a better-rounded, and stress-tested outcome, and indeed one that almost by definition will appeal to a more diverse audience (itself good for business).

Kathryn went on to produce some eye-opening statistics to the roundtable. In September 2022, according to the Bar Council, there were 711 Chancery barristers, but only 153 were women. Worse still, only 16 of those were of ethnic minority. Kathryn identified two issues that potentially drive underrepresentation:

1. Recruitment

2. Retention

Although there have been more women than men called to the Bar for some time now, the split is even worse when it comes to those being offered tenancies. In Chancery, 4.7% of men and 3% of women applicants secured a pupillage. These statistics illustrate that while women have proven their ability to break the barriers to entry and are opening the door at application stage, they are stifled when it comes to walking through it. Kathryn revealed that on average, men leave private practice at 57, and women at 48. Kathryn recognises mid-life as the prime of a barrister’s career, and therefore the age disparity should be bridged. Beyond the statistics, women in the Chancery Bar have reported being subject to harassment and bullying, as well as being affected by the power of patronage, and note that they feel they ‘naturally’ take on the unpaid work of chambers. These factors all contributed to women leaving the profession early.

Serle Court is progressing several diversity and inclusion strategies during the recruitment process, and when retaining its talent. It is partnering with organisations and Universities who are already figureheads in improving diversity and inclusion. Serle Court plans to sponsor these initiatives and develop its own recruitment policies to ensure these are as inclusive as possible. By working with psychologists, Serle Court has established that placing an emphasis on soft skills in its application process will help create a more well-rounded set of chambers. This, Kathryn said, should lead to greater retention. While working at Serle Court, staff are offered flexible working policies and in relation to work allocation, the clerking team are trained to ensure that new opportunities are spread fairly and equally amongst barristers. Kathryn states that Serle Court will be filled with more female and BAME role models. The audience at the roundtable would certainly agree that she is one herself.

Next to speak was Stephanie Bell, Psychotherapist and Executive Coach at the Carvalho Consultancy. Stephanie discussed the intricacies of imposter syndrome and how it can impact retention within the legal industry. Stephanie reported that while male lawyers also suffer imposter syndrome, women continually fail to internalise their successes. Stephanie’s knowledge linked back to Karen’s statements when opening the discussion, that when she attends a male led business lunch, it is long and extravagant, whereas when she lunches with women, she finds them to be far more cost and time efficient. Karen’s point rings true: why do men feel more worthy of and more comfortable with these exudations of business grandeur than women? It seems that women are not yet able to accept, or be accepted, for their industry prowess without guilt or sacrifice.

 

Denise Murphy, Manager of BUCKLESconnect, Buckles’ International referral network, closed the event and shared one tip with the attendees to help all challenge imposter syndrome – namely, for each to counter any spiralling negative thoughts from the day by writing themselves a brief note each night, listing the positives they achieved that day, to focus their mind on the value they bring to the world.

Luckily, Buckles, Serle Court, and all the professionals in the room, recognise the invaluable influence of women in the legal industry and will continue their work to bridge the gap in equalities.  To get involved in this conversation, follow #womenonboardinlaw on social media.

See also a youtube video with ten tips for women, curated from Karen Jones, Citywealth who has more than a decade of working with women in her Powerwomen awards https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15yMEzw9idw

 

 

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