Today, 8 March 2022, is International Women’s Day. The theme this year is break the bias, as we look to live in a world that is diverse and inclusive, free from bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. The goal for us all is to create inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive and their achievements are celebrated.

We asked the Ardent team and a number of our clients to reflect on this, and asked 2 questions:

  • What is the best advice that you were given at the start of your career? And
  • How do you think we can break the bias in the legal profession to ensure the next generation of lawyers work in a gender equal environment?

What is the best advice that you were given at the start of your career?

The answers to this question were diverse, and included motivational advice as well as highly practical comments.

Moira Slape at Travers Smith commented: “Trust your instinct and be yourself – do not try to be something you are not.” She also passed on words of wisdom from her father, to make sure that you take the annual leave you are allocated. As she observed: “No one will thank you for not doing so!”

Rosalind Connor of ARC Pensions Law also received two pieces of advice. She said: “The best general advice came from my husband – always treat the people at the bottom of the business structure with the most respect (such as the security guard, receptionist or cleaners).  They notice and value it and feel most vulnerable to rudeness.”

Her best advice about being a woman in a male dominated environment came from her all girls comprehensive which she described as being in a rough area of a rather depressed city. Rosalind said “They told us at school that you don’t need other people to affirm who you are.  If someone thinks you are stupid and/or incapable because you are a woman/not privately educated/not “one of them”, that doesn’t lessen your skills or knowledge, and you know who you are and what you can do.”

Amrit Mclean, Partner, Head of Pensions De-risking at DLA Piper similarly focussed on forging positive relationships. She said: “The best advice I was given at the start of my career was to get to know the junior team members at each client or firm.  The partners stressed that these individuals in our peer group would become the decision makers in the future.  It is never too early to start developing a strong, genuine network.”

The advice given to Fiona Parry at Hill Dickinson emphasized the longevity of a professional career. She was advised that “Your career is a marathon not a sprint – pace yourself. And have a vision- set yourself a 5 year plan and work out the steps you need to take to achieve it.”

Know your audience

Janine Esbrand of Career ChangeMakers said “The best advice that I was given was to know your audience. Before preparing an application, a presentation, a brief, a summary or a client note, think about who your audience is so that you are able to tailor both the content and delivery to the person on the receiving end. This has served me well and it has become second nature for me to put myself in the shoes of the person that I intend to communicate with.”

Within the Ardent team, Director Jane Gaunt and Operations Manager Kat Jones also reflected on their early career advice.

Jane observed: “Whilst thinking about my options outside of practising law I remember being told to “find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. Moving into legal recruitment over ten years ago and in recent years running a business has certainly provided me with a long-lasting career that whilst demanding never really feels like work. Having a vocation that you are passionate about certainly helps to navigate some of the challenges that come with the unpredictable nature of recruitment and business.”

Kat commented: “I am lucky to have worked in very female dominated teams with women who were highly successful in their field of expertise and very happy to offer up advice. When I first started working in recruitment around 20 years ago I was told by the Head of the Private Practice team (a woman) to remember it is a small City. Be kind and treat people fairly and respectfully as you never know who may become a client or a candidate. That advice has stood me in good stead as many contacts I worked with in those first few years are still clients today.”

How do you think we can break the bias in the legal profession to ensure the next generation of lawyers work in a gender equal environment?

Fiona was optimistic about the direction of travel. She said “We need to think about evolution not revolution – it’s a journey that takes time to achieve but we are moving in the right direction and everyone can play their part. There has never been such a great time for women to flourish in their careers given the rapid advance in flexible and hybrid working and the huge demand for talent -we can make a career fit around what works for us.”

The role of mentoring

Moira commented: “Senior male lawyers mentoring more junior female lawyers can make a difference in so many ways. There is often a view that a female lawyer needs a female mentor. I don’t agree that this is always the best solution. Reverse mentoring is also a fascinating way of breaking down bias.”

Janine also reflected on the need for visibility of women’s achievements. She said “The impact of trailblazing women in the industry needs to be more widely celebrated and highlighted. There is often attrition amongst mid-level female associates because they don’t see enough examples of what is possible for them.”

Rosalind reflected on the risk to gender equality posed by a growing tendency to classify behaviour by gender – women are good at X, men are good at Y.  She said: “Of course, some men are better than some women at certain things, and vice versa, but it is not being a man or a woman that is the driver – we are all different and a thousand influences shape who we are, our gender being only one. If we stop expecting women to have certain skills and not have others, we won’t choose our team for a project, our candidates for promotion, our colleague to introduce to that great client, based on gender, but based on the person themselves.”

The impact of childcare on gender equality

Several of the responses addressed the issue of childcare responsibilities. Amrit commented “In terms of breaking the bias, I would love to see more progress in ensuring dads are given enough time and flexibility to play an equal role in childcare and home life. It is great to see the progress in maternity leave and flexible working, but often it is harder for dads to get the same flexibility. Until there is equality in terms of childcare responsibilities, mums careers will always be disproportionately affected when starting a family.”

Rosalind said: “I am delighted that flexible working and parental leave changes have made the workplace so much more friendly for those who choose to start a family, but increasingly depressed about how few men make use of these opportunities.  Some men are leading the way, but then again, some have always been deeply involved fathers, but until society (women just as much as men) stops seeing raising children as a “girl’s job” (to quote Theresa May), we can never break down this extremely challenging barrier.  I am very proud that my husband raised my children just as much as I did, but I am painfully aware how unusual that is, and how odd the other parents at the school/nursery/cub scouts found his role, and how very much they viewed me as a failure as a result.”

Unconscious bias

Janine agreed, saying: “We need to see more women partners who also have families showing that it is possible and a desirable path to take. We have a long way to go to overcome the unconscious bias that exists when it comes to female lawyers starting families. Women often get sidelined and their career development is not taken as seriously because of the assumption that will not want to progress their careers after having children. It’s important that everyone gets the opportunity to drive their career forward and reach their potential regardless of their gender and /or parental status. Otherwise we will continue to see talented legal professionals leaving the profession to soon.”

Jane said: “Whilst there are a lot of issues affecting gender inequality within the legal sector a significant issue is maternity leave and childcare which is often assumed to be more of a female’s responsibility. Of course, there are practical reasons as to why maternity leave (at least in the early months)  is important for females, but by firms being more vocal and supportive of males  taking shared paternity leave and to deal with general childcare issues the impact of balancing a career and family becomes a much more gender-neutral issue.  I am always impressed by the new generation of solicitors who have qualified in recent years that are much more open and accepting of the concept of shared paternity leave and look forward to seeing how these future leaders will have an impact helping to address this bias.”

Moira commented “Firms need to work harder at assessing potential at any earlier stage in a lawyer’s career so that women who are identified as having the potential know that they are regarded for their potential.  Honest conversations around women’s development and potential really matter.  I also believe that mentoring can really help in tackling the bias that still pervades our profession.”

Changes in the workplace

Kat summed up the responses: “As many of the responses have mentioned there have been huge changes in the workplace over the last decade. We have seen this particularly in the last 5 years and of course the change to working patterns over the last 2 years. These are helping to level things up but there is still a long way to go in the legal profession.

“Change takes time and it is interesting to see the differing view of the generation of junior-mid level lawyers coming through the ranks. They are so much more open about talking about life and commitments outside of the office and working in a way that allows work to fit around our other responsibilities and leisure activities. I think 10-20 years ago we would have been quietly sneaking out of the office leaving a jacket on the back of our chairs. To break the bias we need to do more of this, model good behavior. Let everyone in your team know you are leaving early for a school rugby match or to a gym session and you’ll be back on line later if you need to, or better still – in the morning!”

 

Many thanks to our clients for their time in answering our questions so thoughtfully.

If you would like to discuss your career in confidence with Director Jane Gaunt, please get in touch.