Glass ceiling or brick wall: What’s stopping women in law?

More than ever, gender equality in the workplace is under scrutiny - and it’s a particularly hot topic within the legal sector. Thankfully the ‘old boys network’ is largely a thing of the past, with modern law firms taking positive steps to empower women in what is seen as an increasingly equal and diverse profession.

13 March 2019

According to the Law Society, women account for 60% of newly-qualified lawyers and nearly half of all solicitors, whilst more than two-thirds of law students are female. So does that mean that private practices in the future will be chock full of senior women? Unlikely.

Whilst the legal sector has little problem attracting female talent into entry-level and mid-management positions, the difficulty lies in retaining them. And this is a problem. Figures from the SRA (2018) show that women make up only 33% of law firm partners, despite being (at least) equally well represented in lower level positions.

With women leaving the profession in disproportionately high numbers, this could be tipping the talent pool at the very top heavily in favour of men. Or does gender bias come into play at post-Associate level, meaning females are being overlooked for promotion?

Either way, it’s important to ask - what is stopping women being equally represented at senior management and partnership level in 2019?

A broken pipeline to partnership?

One of the problems facing female lawyers is that the traditional straight-line of progression - from trainee and newly qualified through to partner - largely coincides with the prospect of starting a family. This makes a steady (and uninterrupted) rise through the ranks incompatible with the lifestyle choices of many women, forcing them to choose between prolonging their career or juggling the double duties of the partnership track with a myriad of parenting responsibilities.

Furthermore, returning to work after having children presents a range of challenges - institutional sexism and negative attitudes towards working mums; employers reluctant to embrace flexible working; poor management of returning employees; and failure to understand the demands and expectations of women balancing work and family life.

Mix in a long-hours culture, demanding clients and high fee-earning targets - not to mention the difficulty in visualising a career that offers a reasonable work/life balance - is it any wonder that a significant percentage of female solicitors fail to return to the profession following maternity leave?

Gender equality - or lip service?

Ask any modern law firm whether they’ve pledged to end gender inequality and the answer will undoubtedly be “yes”. But how many have the policies and procedures in place to back up these claims - and have they clearly articulated them? Paying lip service to gender equality and treating it as a box-ticking exercise simply isn’t enough.

Some firms have introduced quotas on female partner proportions in an attempt to create gender equality at the top; but (understandably) few are in favour. The fact that a round of all-female promotions justifies a press release is telling enough. It’s insulting. After all, who wants to be the ‘token female’ promoted on the basis of gender, rather than merit?

Lack of flexibility at the top

There’s no disputing the fact that women still take up the majority of primary care roles within families. Can you balance a career and a family? Yes, of course you can - but it’s hard work. More often than not, women find themselves having to balance professional success and their personal life as the day-to-day practicalities of raising a family clash with their high-octane career paths.

This is where flexible working comes in - and there’s little doubt that law firms are working to create policies that support work-life balance. The difficulty lies in the unconscious bias around flexible working - and this has just as much of a role to play in keeping the glass ceiling stubbornly and resolutely in place.

We all know that working 18 hour days isn’t the route to success. Yet why are people (and women in particular) who work flexibly regarded differently? Many would argue that this simply isn’t the case; yet the perception that working fewer hours will negatively affect your chances of promotion continues to prevail - whether justifiably or not.

For many female lawyers, balancing their professional and personal lives is one of their biggest challenges - one which isn’t helped by institutional sexism and widespread misconceptions about women’s priorities and the burden of childcare. Working less hours doesn't mean that someone is less committed. But until we see more law firms consider part-timers for partnership roles, the attitude that law is an all-or-nothing-career simply won’t change.

The path to parity

BPP University Law School, in their ‘Law Firm of the Future’ report, suggests that it will take another 20 years to get gender parity in senior legal positions.

Until then, it’s down to the individual law firms to take action - introducing diversity policies, addressing the gender pay gap, implementing flexible working practices and offering unconscious bias training. Only then will they remove the barriers that stop talented female lawyers from succeeding in law, regardless of their background and personal circumstances.

Flexology are flexible working specialists. We’re currently working on a number of legal roles with high profile Bristol law firms and would be interested in speaking to Incentive Lawyers, Conveyancing Solicitors , Commercial Property specialists and legal experts in corporate finance and dispute resolution with a minimum 2 years PQE.

All roles offer some degree of flexible and agile working pattern, an excellent work/life balance and plenty of opportunity for progression. Our clients are also open to speculative CVs, so if you have great experience but want more flexibility, get in touch to see if we can represent you.

For further information, you can register your CV at contact me on 0117 214 1224 or email