A major survey of leading lawyers commissioned by the Law Society found that despite big steps forward by many leading firms, some employers are paying mere lip service to flexible working.
The survey, which was conducted by global legal information and practice solution providers LexisNexis and saw nearly 1,200 lawyers respond, aimed to establish the main reasons for few women making partner and even fewer reaching management boards despite soaring numbers of women entering the profession.
Following the survey, a high-level international summit attended by over 130 delegates from top City firms, boutique practices and senior in-house counsel from major corporations including Ashurst, Deloitte, Herbert Smith Freehills and BP produced a series of recommendations aimed at addressing the problem. These include introducing gender targets and embedding flexible working practices in corporate culture.
Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said:
‘An increasing number of firms have genuinely embraced and adopted modern flexible working practices, allowing better work-life balance. These firms are attracting more talented women and men with boardroom potential.
‘But there remains an uncomfortable truth. In some firms, where the opportunities for those wanting to strike a balance between high-flying work and family life are still scarce, men dominate the boardrooms. Unwittingly, these firms may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men.
‘It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the benefits of flexible working. It is not acceptable to consider women who take advantage of flexible working practices as somehow lacking commitment. The risk is that boardrooms will be full of men only some of whose talent warrants their senior positions. If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall. This is disappointing for the talented women who lose out, but is also damaging to the organisations which lose what they have to offer.’
Minister for Women and Equalities Helen Grant said:
‘Women are at the heart of this country’s economic growth strategy. We need to do all we can to make the most of their talents and skills and that means providing them with the support to balance family life and a career.
‘That is why the government is addressing the barriers faced by women, to ensure the workplace and, above all, our society match the needs of women in modern Britain. The report published today by the Law Society raises some issues, most importantly flexible and part-time working, which I fully endorse. This is crucial if we want women to stay in the workplace and will help businesses to retain talented staff.
‘We also need to encourage and support employers to put the right measures in place. But the way to do this is not through special treatment or mandatory quotas. The evidence shows that our voluntary approach is working; in the past six months women now represent 44 per cent of FTSE100 Board appointments. We are taking the same approach with Think, Act, Report – a voluntary scheme that encourages companies to think about how to offer equal opportunities for women in the workplace. This approach is driving real change with more than 1.2 million employees – 11 per cent of the eligible workforce – now working for companies who support the scheme.’
The report, which details the recommendations and survey findings, was presented at an event hosted jointly by the Law Society and the Interlaw Diversity Forum tonight 10 January 2013 to an audience of nearly 100 people, including senior partners and in-house counsel from top firms including CMS Cameron McKenna, BP and Wragge and Co.
Firms including Ashurst, Eversheds and Hogan Lovells have already introduced targets for the number of women in high-level positions, while seven law firms, including magic circle firm Linklaters, have signed up to the government’s Think, Act, Report initiative.