In October 2017 Jenny Wilde was named a finalist at the First 100 Years Inspirational Women in Law Awards 2017. In honour of International Women’s Day we now publish her essay on how women can shape the future of the legal industry, which got her into the top 5 of this national event.
It’s hard to shake the learned behaviour that has been instilled in women since the dawn of time. “You should be seen and not heard”, “You must simply be there to provide support for your husband”, “A lady is humble”.
One might deduce that women have been conditioned by a patriarchal society to be modest. The consequence of failing to conform to this maxim is ridicule and shame. It is therefore no surprise that the progress of women during their legal careers is more likely to stagnate when they approach senior levels. They are, traditionally, far less likely to draw attention to their own successes than male counterparts and as a result, male colleagues often achieve promotion at a much quicker rate, having been taught that it is socially acceptable, or even required, that they parade their triumphs for all to see. Whilst I am not one for stereotypes, in my experience, the women I have worked with are industrious, determined, highly intelligent and painfully modest about it. Often they are the backbone of the firm, quietly grafting and gathering success after success. They don’t blow their own trumpets and their success tends to be leaked anecdotally months after the event, usually when they are helping a colleague with a similar case. Sure, I have male colleagues that have similar traits but the fact is that a male colleague would be more confident in looking our boss in the eye and telling him how he had performed. I’m not sure why this is. I don’t hold it against the men I have worked with, in fact I admire that ability, but I ask myself: why do some women find that so hard and what effect is it having on their progress?
A recent study by BPP University Law School analysed 25 years’ worth of data from the Law Society and used it to produce “Law Firm of the Future”, a report published at the end of September 2017. The report concluded that, at present, 47% of lawyers are women. If the law school’s statistical modelling projection is to be relied upon, this will rise to 71% by 2037. This is wonderful news for women entering the profession, but where does that leave the women who want to progress through the ranks? In 2014, Chambers conducted a survey on gender in the law. It asked over 100 firms across England about the composition of their workforce. It was found that the average percentage of female partners across these firms was just 24%. Only two of the 100 plus firms surveyed had a partnership comprised of at least 50% women. Whilst female solicitors are heading towards parity and proportionality at the lower levels of the profession, they remain severely underrepresented at the higher ones.
The only way to change this is to encourage women to celebrate their own abilities and invite their managers and male colleagues to help them to speak out. We need to create a stairway to the top. All it takes is for a colleague to open the door ajar to encourage a discussion about a successful case. Women in particular should be encouraging each other to do so and making sure that their bosses are well within earshot. There is no shame in being proud of oneself and demonstrating this pride will encourage other female lawyers to follow suit. If women create an environment where “bragging” is not frowned upon or gossiped about then this will ensure that their male colleagues (who statistically are likely to include their managing partner) are made aware of their achievements. Women should empower each other and foster an environment where success is shared and celebrated informally as well as on a firm-wide level (e.g. through meritorious bonus payments). Often meaningful acknowledgment will mean as much as cold hard cash.
There is a subtle difference between modesty and humility. Women in law should be encouraged to be open about success and share that success with team mates whilst maintaining a level of humility – that is the quality of a true leader. If women work together to change the expectations of society then they will be able to demonstrate with much more ease their suitability for more senior positions. As female lawyers become more senior and demonstrate their successes, they will serve as role models for the new entrants into the profession who might feel more comfortable in telling a success story over the coffee machine.
In my spare time I am the Chairwoman of East London Little Ladies Football Club, based in Hackney. Every Saturday morning our team gathers 40-50 girls, aged between 3-12 years, together and we play football in the rain. As we warm up, we ask each of the girls to tell us one great thing that they have done that week. The answers range from “I fed my dog” to “I didn’t hit my sister” but my favourite came from a 6 year old over the summer. When asked the question, she looked at me and said “My friend came to me with a problem, I worked hard and we sorted it out. Now she’s always asking me for help”. This is what I want to hear from my colleagues. That pride. The sense of achievement. The ability to look someone in the eye and tell them how you succeeded. And all it took was for someone to ask her the question.
Support and encouragement goes a long way and it will take women helping women to understand that modesty is not a requirement of your gender. Women should be pushing each other to the fore and providing healthy competition for colleagues of both genders.