From Law to Politics: Seeking Equality in the Legal Profession – Part 2

This time 100 years ago, women were playing an essential role in keeping Britain going during the First World War: continuing production lines, rebuilding houses, leading communities and caring for the wounded and vulnerable – all of this, without the right to vote. As we know, 1918 saw the end of the war and the beginning of women officially entering the worlds of politics and law that had, up until then, been the domain of men alone. However, the warning signs over the continued struggle for equality were visible in The Representation of the People Act (1918) as, rather than being granted parity with men, who could vote at 21 and didn’t have any property restrictions, women had to wait until 30 and meet minimum property qualifications. Bizarrely, the act allowed women to stand as an MP from the age of 21, once again indicating a willingness to give women responsibility, but not the corresponding rights.

Isabelle Parasram: Women's Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11 February 2016 This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.
Isabelle Parasram:
Women’s Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11 February 2016
This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.

There seems to be a culture that partial equality, which is no equality at all, is acceptable. It is evident as a 29% proportion of female MP’s is hailed as an achievement. It is evident in the gender diversity targets that some law firms set, where somewhere between 20% and 40% women partners is deemed an acceptable number for equality. While those at the top appear willing to make some concessions and support initiatives, the reality indicates that they do not want things to change.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that redressing this disparity is not about who is making the final decisions in the boardroom. The imbalance has major real-life consequences. More than four decades after the The Equal Pay Act (1970), the gender pay gap remains at 24% for average annual salaries. Women in Northern Ireland continue to be charged and prosecuted for having an abortion, despite The Abortion Act (1967) coming into effect almost 50 years ago, and it breaching international human rights law.

Similarly, rape within marriage was finally made a crime in 1994, yet we still see conviction rates of only 5.7% for reported cases overall – and that is excluding the thousands of rapes that go unreported every year. These are worrying signs, according to Jo Shaw, who bemoans “this idea that violence against women or abuse of women isn’t taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination.” While Jo does not believe there is a major issue with sexual assault in the legal profession, she does worry that the culture of women not being taken seriously remains dominant.

In terms of the percentages of representation at the Bar, the existence of this irrational prejudice cannot be hid from. Despite being called in increasingly large numbers, women are still severely underrepresented at the top levels, particularly in the judiciary. The cumulative disadvantage experienced by black and minority ethnic women barristers can be even greater, and they continue to make up a high proportion of those leaving the profession, representing an alarming loss of talent. All of these issues affect the gender pay gap within the profession. Speaking about the gender pay gap in general, Harini points out that it has wider consequences on opportunities and equality beyond money in the bank: “Economic inequality comes out in all kinds of way, in terms of reduced opportunities for education, training, to travel to new jobs, autonomy to leave violent situations or to get education or opportunities for their children.”

Harini Iyengar: Women's Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11 This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.
Harini Iyengar:
Women’s Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11
This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.

Once again, we see the most basic needs potentially put in jeopardy because of a skewed system. Part of the problem, according to Jo, might be the inherent secrecy that goes with discussions of pay. She claims that, if we were to enforce transparency rules (we are currently waiting until 2018) then companies would either “be embarrassed when they publish it or they’ll change something before they publish so it won’t be embarrassing, which would be a good thing.” It’s also about the kind of roles that women generally specialise in, says Harini, as a lot of women are, at present, choosing or being nudged into the lower-paid specialisms.

We cannot make assumptions about what women want, particularly young women who are entering the profession from a generation whose workplace demands are very different. We should be making them aware of the variety of opportunities in more handsomely paid areas of law – to not do so exacerbates the pay gap and reinforces the exclusive, male-oriented culture in those roles.

Isabelle, having had a varied career in-house, in private practice and now, running her own Chambers, has learned, through experience, how to overcome obstacles and ensure her workplace demands are met. “At this stage of my career, I’m not driven by fear. I’m free to choose when and how I want to work and to expect clients and colleagues to treat me with respect – which I reciprocate. What I’ve found is, when you draw boundaries with clients and colleagues, they value you more.” It was no easy task though, to reach this level of confidence: “When I look at my young daughter and reflect on the world she will grow up in, I think: ’it’s been quite a process of development for me…gosh she’s got such a long way to go’.”

The experiences of women at the Bar differ from the experiences of male barristers in ways which go beyond the pay gap, though. Women barristers’ experiences of maternity leave and its impact upon their careers are key. Harini, who took four months’ maternity leave when she had her first baby, felt she had to be discreet about her pregnancy, taking maternity leave, and being a working mother, but believes, “things have changed, even in the legal profession, which is still quite conservative. People are more accepting of women having children and coming back.” As a steering group member of the Temple Women’s Forum, Harini continues to work for change in the profession.

Jo Shaw: Women's Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11 February 2016 This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.
Jo Shaw:
Women’s Equality Party candidates for Mayor of London, City Hall, Thursday 11 February 2016
This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2016©.

Isabelle agrees, to an extent, praising the Bar Council for all the work they’ve done establishing a nursery, numerous networking groups and increasing training, but still doesn’t think her needs for work-life balance would fit at a conventional chambers. Harini acknowledges that there are advantages and disadvantages to being a mother at the Bar: “It’s self-employed, so it’s very empowering and you have autonomy, but it can be a bit scary because at every stage people say, ‘you do what you think is right’. And I always seem to be doing things differently to other people!” With so few men taking on similar caring responsibilities, and the proportion of female barristers who are also mothers being low, it is easy to see how a lack of support can push women away from the profession.

This inequality, which forces a lot of women to be more efficient in their time management and more creative in how they handle their workload, ends up affecting them negatively when applying for high-level roles, which is particularly evident when looking at QC appointments. Taking silk is supposed to be a mark of excellence for advocacy but, according to Jo, they are far more reflective of the inconsistencies in the profession: “The judges that you need for references tend to work on big commercial litigation. That sort of work doesn’t tend to be done by women, it also doesn’t tend to be done by people who work part-time or flexibly, nor by solicitors.”

The reason this matters is, of course, because the judiciary is generally selected from the ranks of QC’s, “and if you only have a particular demographic of QC, you’re going to limit where you get talent from.” When you realise that you are far more likely to be appointed a judge, the ultimate arbiter of respect and decency in society, if you are a privileged man who happens to have taken a very similar path to other privileged men, you realise that the “appalling consequences for justice” that Lord Sumption was so worried about may already be in existence.

Herein lies the crux of the matter. Legislation does not force people to change their perceptions, nor does it suddenly mean that the responsibilities that are disproportionately placed on women outside of the workplace, such as childcare, are now going to be equally taken on by men. The truth is that there has to be the will to change, which, according to Harini, cannot come from external pressure, it must come from within an organisation: “What I would really like to see is businesses taking ownership of it. I don’t think there’s going to be a change until businesses say, ‘we as employers, professionals, leaders and associations want to make a change’.” Thus, we reach the key reason why Harini, Jo and Isabelle have joined the WEP and are standing for the London Assembly, to force through change themselves. As Isabelle says: “there’s no point banging your head against a brick wall, trying to change one thing at a time within the minutiae if there is no will to change. That’s why getting involved in politics has been such a great opportunity for me.”

Part 3 to follow, as we look at flexible working and work-life balance.

Related Articles: 

From Law to Politics: Seeking Equality in the Legal Profession – Part 1

Thoughts for 2016: Charlotte Proudman

Diversity at the Bar: Monica Feria-Tinta

Diversity at the Bar: Susan Belgrave

To be ‘out’ and proud, or walk the tightrope of truthful obscurity? By Brie Stevens-Hoare QC

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