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The fight for gender equality continues

updated on 08 March 2022

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the achievements of women. This year’s theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. 

Reading time: 23 minutes

The theme recognises the contribution of female leaders around the world, “who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all.” This year’s collective movement is #BreakTheBias, which supports breaking the bias in our workplaces, communities and academic institutions.

And no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens. And I know this first-hand from the history of my own country – Michelle Obama

Gender equality, climate change and sustainability

There’s mounting evidence that concludes gender equality has profound impacts on social, environmental wellbeing and contributes significantly to sustainability. Law firms that partake in environmental projects and take their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals seriously can perpetuate gender equality in the workplace and make a real difference for women in law.

Read this LCN Blog to find out how firms emphasise sustainability in M&A deals: ‘Commercial awareness series: the rise of ESG law firms’.

The United Nations found that women worldwide are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men and its figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. According to the government’s findings, this is partly because they “constitute a large majority of the world’s poor and often depend on small-scale farming for a livelihood, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change.”

As climate change issues intensify this creates a knock-on effect on women, including limiting opportunities in academia, careers, income generations while increasing exposure to violence and sexual assaults in the workplace and society. The connection between gender equality and climate change highlights the importance of society tackling both and taking each seriously. This highlights the connection between gender equality and being eco-friendly.

Studies show that “when gender inequality is high, forest depletion, air pollution and other measures of environmental degradation are also high.” Similarly, gender equality is important to economic development because sustainable development relies heavily on ending discrimination against women and providing education and career opportunities.

As it stands, women are victims of climate change but can become agents of change that address climate adaption and mitigation, when given the opportunity. Working women should be put in leadership positions to create and be part of the decision making to implement sustainability goals and implement green practices in the workplace. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority’s (SRA) 2022 diversity data found that “[w]omen are underrepresented at partner level in firms of all sizes, but to a greater extent in the largest law firms” – this indicates there remains a seniority gap between female partners and solicitors.

The data suggests that the legal profession is letting more women into the profession but not promoting them to senior levels. So, it’s important that law firms continue to publish their gender pay gap data including statistics of female partners, not only because this influences the talent pool but because it ensures accountability.

UK international champion on adaptation and resilience for the COP26 presidency, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said: “It is women, girls and those who are already most marginalised, that will be most severely impacted by climate change. But they also have a critical role to play to address the climate crisis.”

Law firms’ ESG focus

Law firms are working with clients, now more than ever, that are seeking to transform their businesses in pursuit of net-zero targets or social impact goals. Since covid-19 law firms and organisations have taken positive steps to tackle gender equality by introducing ESG goals and implementing sustainable initiatives in the workplace.

The pandemic revealed that society adapts and works in different ways and highlighted the need for firms to commit to reporting progress on environmental and sustainability projects and how they plan to work towards gender equality.

For example, in this Commercial Question, Michelmores LLP lists strategies that firms can commit to such as:

  • changing purchasing practices;
  • using sustainable energy supply;
  • reducing heat gain, electricity consumption and paper usage;
  • reducing equipment replacement spend;
  • implementing a zero-waste-to-landfill;
  • using LED lighting;
  • using technology usage to reduce travel impact (including agile working policies); and
  • creating more wildlife-friendly office grounds.


Key social matters are equally as important to law firms because it’s an opportunity to show how flexible and reactive they can be.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement attracted public attention globally when women who were victims of sexual harassment spoke up about their experiences with prominent male figures. Tarana Burke started a domino effect that birthed a social movement against sexual abuse and harassment, giving victims the strength and confidence to publicise allegations of sex crimes.

Read this Commercial Question: ‘Is it just you or is it #MeToo’ to find out how employers can improve the situation for potential victims and employers alike.

This movement also shed light on the sexual harassment occurring in the workplace; for example, Nicola Thorp, who was sent home by PwC without pay for refusing to wear two-inch heels, highlighted the discriminatory dress code women must still abide by. Nicola’s experience echoed Dr Charlotte Proudman’s experience, a feminist and human rights barrister who shamed a senior lawyer over his LinkedIn message on her appearance. These experiences show that despite the Equality Act’s enforcement in 2010, women are still being judged by their looks, and not their talents and merits.

Read last year’s International Women’s Day Feature to learn more about women in the workplace: International Women’s Day: what does the legal profession look like for women in 2021?

Agnes Hussherr, PwC’s global human capital leader, commended women for being trailblazers. Women are “more career ambitious and financially independent than ever before and they expect more from employers. Talking the talk is no longer enough. To attract and keep female talent, employers must be transparent about their commitment to diversity, their diversity progress, and create an open and inclusive culture where women can thrive and reach their potential.”

Women in STEM – breaking into a man’s world

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sector has traditionally been male-dominated with the likes of Elon Musk and Tim Berners-Lee. For the first time, over one million women work in core-STEM roles in the UK. In honour of Black History Month last year, POCIT highlights 10 influential Black British women who code and break down barriers, including self-taught software developers and an inspirational woman who wrote her first line of code at the age of 10. Similarly, Essence lists Black women bridging the gap in the tech world through coding, gaming or entrepreneurship.

There has been an increase in support systems for women in tech too. For example, WCAN has a mentoring programme to guide Black women (during any time of their career) in law, finance and tech. They offer networking with global corporate firms, women leadership workshops and events, personal and professional development, application, CV, cover letter support, and social events with like-minded black women.

The government’s data from the Annual Population Survey shows that, as of 2019, “there are now just over a million women (1,019,400) in core-STEM – representing an increase of over 350,000 in the last 10 years.” This means that women now make up 24% of the core-STEM workforce – the last 10 years’ data shows that we can expect just over 29% of women in STEM jobs in 2030.

Ongoing concerns

Despite the percentage of female graduates with STEM degrees steadily growing, the split is still just 26% which means more work needs to be done. The computer science, engineering and technology fields show the largest gender imbalances from current students, to graduates and the workforce figures. This means institutions, professions, and society must encourage women to study these subjects and transition into the workforce.

Covid-19 and gender equality

In May 2020, we reported women in law’s covid-19 struggles via LawCareers.Net’s News. A survey conducted by First 100 Years Project reported that half of working mothers in the legal profession were taking on more childcare responsibilities than their partners during the UK’s lockdown.

The survey was completed by 900 women, with nine in 10 respondents reporting that they took on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities as a result of the UK lockdown. One-third of respondents worked reduced hours to juggle additional responsibilities, while 73% stated they were struggling with the situation.

According to the Law Gazetteone law firm partner was “working at home around the clock while having to juggle a four-year-old and an ill husband. It is exhausting and at the same time I am dealing with the reality that the firm just may not survive this.” All staff at her firm, except the partners, were put on the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of First 100 Years project, said that the survey indicates that women in the legal profession are being hit hard by the pandemic. “Many are attempting to do the impossible and there is a reluctance to admit they are not superwomen,” she said.

Read this LCN Says by Dana Denis-Smith to find out what we can learn from the stories of women in law: In 2019 we celebrate 100 years of women in law. What can we learn from their stories?

Research from McKinsey & Company reveals the pandemic’s negative effect on working mothers, many have struggled with a “double shift” of household responsibilities, mental health challenges, a difficult remote-work experience, and have concerns about higher rates of unemployment—particularly among Black mothers and single mothers.

According to McKinsey, “[t]hese burdens come on top of structural barriers for working women, including being the ‘only’ woman in the room and playing an allyship role for others.” The McKinsey Global Institute concluded that the gender-regressive effects caused by covid-19 have not only harmed the “immediate economic security for millions of women and their families but also long-term economic growth and social stability.”

On the other hand, research shows that hybrid working has assisted in levelling the playing field and has become an equaliser for women in the workplace. A LinkedIn survey discovered that women are 26% more likely than men to apply to work remotely.

However, despite how useful hybrid working has been for women, the SRA’s 2022 diversity data found that 61% of solicitors are female compared to 35% of partners. Despite the gap closing since 2019, “the proportion of female solicitors has not changed, the proportion of female partners has risen from 34% in 2019 to 35% in 2021.”

The voices of women in law

We asked a range of inspirational women in the legal profession their views on gender equality and whether they viewed their gender as an obstacle to becoming a lawyer. Here’s what they had to say.

Abigail Dudeney, legal assistant at Wellcome Trust said she always looks at a firm’s diversity statistic before applying for a job to ensure they align with her personal morals: “I believe a company functions better if it is run by people with a broad spectrum of beliefs and experiences.

“I think the legal industry is still predominantly a man’s industry in many ways. Lawyers are often associated with being aggressive and argumentative, traits that are also more commonly linked with men, so being an empathetic woman in this industry can leave you feeling like an imposter.

There remains the idea that women must choose between having a career or having a family, and gender pay gaps feed into this notion. Law firms must do more to ensure that women feel secure enough in their careers to have a family and raise children without facing setbacks.”

Kseniia Samokinha, associate at Ashurst LLP, echoed this and said checking the firm’s gender statistics was an important criterion before applying. She said her employer assesses her performance strictly on merit and emphasised that “reporting gender pay gaps is crucial because people need to be aware of the reality and be given an explanation as to why this gap exists.”

In comparison, Venandah V Madanhi, trainee solicitor at Latham & Watkins, didn’t check firms’ diversity statistics or number of female partners when applying for a training contract because she “already knew that things were bad statistics wise.” However, she explained that “just because a firm doesn’t have many Black lawyers doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t apply. All it takes is one person to start a change.”

Similarly, Ayomide Abraham, trainee solicitor at southgate solicitors, also didn’t check the firm’s statistics of female employees. “Maybe this is because family law is usually female-dominated but it’s not a determining factor of where I apply to. So, whether I see the gender pay data or not, my mindset will remain the same. Maybe if I saw it and there was a difference, I might work hard, but I would need justification as to why there is a difference.”

But what about women who must work in a male-dominated workplace or who must interact with men daily?

Chloe Amos, paralegal and future trainee solicitor at PDT Solicitors, said: “One thing I have struggled with is older, white, male solicitors on the other side of transactions. There does feel like a lack of respect and unwillingness to corporate. I’ve had a solicitor on the other side tell me to ‘be sensible’ or ‘stop being ridiculous’ on matters.”

Binta Balogun, trainee solicitor at RPC, thinks the playing field could be levelled by having “more role models in senior positions and being open about the struggles that women face on all levels. Firms should also not categorise women into one group because the struggles they face are cross-sectional. Having diverse role models is key, especially for junior members of the firms."

She adds, "I've appreciated the value that RPC places on mentoring, pro bono and diversity, and that they reward all related activity. Firms that do this will continue to help level the playing field."

An anonymous in-house paralegal agreed: “Women employees should have equal standing, so employers need to allow women to voice their opinions without being made to feel insignificant or silenced. Women already have the trust and credentials to be hired into the workforce, so they should feel seen and valued.”

Anna Samokinha, whose university professor told her a woman cannot be a lawyer seven years ago is now a corporate paralegal and future trainee solicitor at Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.

When choosing which firms to apply to, she said diversity and female partnership targets were one of the main requirements because “women have a lot to offer; we have distinctive ways of thinking, excellent intuition, creativity and passion.”

Now that you’ve heard from the horse’s mouth what practicing women in law think, what about aspiring solicitors applying for training contracts at big City firms? Does a firm that publish its diversity statistics of women in senior positions matter to candidates? Does such transparency show a willingness to change archaic ways and suggest how progressive the internal structures are? And how can law firms use this intel to attract new talent?

Neide Lemos, paralegal at DAC Beachcroft LLP and LCN Blogger said for a firm to stand out to her “they must highlight their future strategy that will get women to the top.”

Challenges Black women face

Gender equality is a struggle that all women face but it’s just one of the barriers for Black women who also face challenges around appearance. This is because they often face discrimination in the workplace due to their hair. This struggle goes back centuries; Black women’s hair has historically been described as “ugly” and “unprofessional”, which has driven many to chemically relax their hair to make it straight, despite the damaging effects. Virginlawmedia sheds some light on the pressures that Black women feel to change their hair to adapt to society’s expectations including changing their hair texture from curly to straight.

For example, to make their hair smooth, Black women must use a relaxer with profound health complications like balding, burns to the scalp due to the harsh chemical ingredients and heat damage. An academic study found that heavy use of hair relaxers containing lye and leave-in conditioners and oils may be linked to a higher risk of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.

Even if a Black woman doesn’t experience explicit racism in the workplace, they are still subject to microaggressions that can materialise in someone feigning they like their new and different hairstyle, or a colleague commenting on the smell of their traditional lunch. Research shows that such subtle, daily racial offences can lead to mental health problems including anxiety, depression and stress.

The Good Hair study showed that “Black women suffer more anxiety around hair issues than their white peers” because of the pressure to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty and professionalism. The study acknowledges that “[w]omen of other races and ethnicities who have curly or textured hair may experience pressure to conform to these beauty standards; but Black women, in a sense, are often pitted against them.”

A Washington Post article indicates that covid was a blessing in disguise for Black women because, for the first time, they experienced workdays free from microaggressions “that followed them at their predominantly White workplaces.”

In addition, the pandemic saw a rise in Black women setting up their own businesses and becoming entrepreneurs overnight. In May 2020, Working Mother Research Institute reported that 52% of Black women were debating leaving their companies in two years.

A 2018 Legal Cheek article concludes that “[i]t’s virtually impossible to reach the top of City firms without straight hair”, highlighting corporate law firms’ unspoken hair policy, which is why many Black professionals hide their natural hair under a weave or wig for interviews and when they start a new job. This stems from the belief that steering away from the European look of straight hair could hinder career opportunities. These attitudes are being challenged with the introduction of policies like the Halo Code.

Halo Code

Many law firms have adopted the Halo Code – a gender-neutral policy that “explicitly protects employees who come to work with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities”. In April 2021, we reported that Kingsley Napley had become the latest firm to adopt the Halo code, following in the footsteps of Linklaters and Fladgate LLP.

By adopting the Halo Code, employers are proactively taking a stand to ensure that no member of their community faces barriers or judgments because of their Afro-textured hair.

More firms and barrister’s chambers must adopt the halo code because it’s a progressive policy that prohibits individuals with Afro-textured hair from being victims of indirect discrimination in the workplace.

Women of the Muslim faith who participated in the Government’s research in 2017 reported that wearing the headscarf at work “was an additional visual marker of difference that was perceived and experienced as leading to further discrimination”. 

In addition, Muslim women who wear a hijab have had colleagues questioning them about what they’re wearing or asking why they can’t just show their real hair. This is an example of islamophobia that holds Muslim women back in the workplace.

An article by Farrer & Co LLP offers tips on how employers can counter islamophobia including providing an “ongoing programme of equal opportunities (including unconscious bias) training, to avoid it going stale in employees’ minds.” Farrer & Co suggested employers grant religious holiday requests, implement a flexible dress code and increase inclusivity by having a prayer room in the office and non-alcoholic drinks at work events.

How can employers provide support for working women?

Drinking culture

There is a heavy drinking culture in the legal profession, which shouldn’t be played down due to the stressors of being a lawyer. Recent reports by Legal Futures have revealed this is an issue that’s spiralling out of control and has serious consequences.

Studies have found that excessive consumption of alcohol in and around the workplace increases the risk of harassment of women by male co-workers. Some cultures don't drink for religious reasons and some people just don't want to drink – the legal profession should include other social activities to improve inclusivity in the workplace and not leave anyone out.

Junior women fall victims to misconduct and harassment by their male colleagues not just in the workplace but also on the dancefloor during a Christmas party or at an after-work party. This highlights the dangers of employers tolerating or encouraging employees to drink. This culture creates a hostile environment for women and has led to lost productivity and subsequent job resignation of those being harassed.

Employers should focus on their sexual harassment prevention policies because having these policies and still fostering a drinking culture is counteractive and cancels each other out. This could include sending calendar invites that have the option of non-alcoholic drinks or booking a venue that doesn’t sell alcohol at all.

A Stylist article indicates that Muslim women feel uneasy socialising in a place that sells alcohol, even if they only order a glass of lemonade. As a result, they struggle to network and socialise with colleagues outside of work. The article states that this is a predicament that Muslim women face. Due to their faith they “struggle to fit in, or worse are unable to progress in their careers.”

Emphasising choice

All women must have a choice as to how they dress, and Black and Muslim women must be able to decide whether to carry their natural hair or wear a hijab or a niqab.

Women know legally they have a right to personal autonomy, but some need reassurance from employers that this choice won’t reflect badly on them as professionals. A woman who wears her afro to work should not be deemed less professional than a woman with silky, straight hair. This reinforces Nicola and Charlotte’s argument; in this day and age, women should not be judged by their appearance but instead on their experiences, skills and expertise, like men are.

Women are brilliant individuals and their appearance is the least interesting thing about them. As an employer, having a backward mentality will harm the business internally and externally; internally because it will affect retention rates and morale, and externally because of the impact it will have on the company’s reputation.

Graduate recruiters shouldn’t be surprised if a suitable candidate happens to be Muslim or from an ethnic background with different hair textures. Instead, they should welcome such diversity with open arms, because it’s ethnic minorities who can make a difference from within firms and bring new perspectives to the workplace. Law firms' employees must be representative of society, including their clients.

Flexibility and transparency

The need for greater work-life flexibility has expanded during the pandemic, specifically for working mothers who can now spend time with their newborns and work from home. According to recent research, remote-working mothers have reported effective time management and view flexible working as a good work/life balance indicator.

This Marie Claire article reports that 52% of women would turn down a job offer if the company didn’t offer the flexible working they required – the article concluded that “[a] future of work without flexibility could be a future without women”.

Flexible working conditions are now one of the top contributors to workplace happiness among UK employees. Almost half of UK employees who took part in a Worksome survey said that the option to spread their work across the whole week would boost their work/life balance. 

Kahlicia Hurley, a first-class law graduate and policy assistant in ABI’s conduct regulation team wrote an LCN Says highlighting the growing gender gap as a global issue and suggested law firms be transparent and honest about their pay rates. She also thinks firms should be understanding when it comes to flexible working for working mothers and should hold themselves accountable to ensure they keep up to date with employment laws and policies.

What does the legal profession look like for women in 2022?

What must change for women in the workplace? Despite the small steps towards gender quality, it’s evident that there’s still more work to be done. Well, President Joe Biden just nominated Kentanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman to sit on Supreme Court so as a society we’re moving in the right direction.

Since covid, we’ve seen the legal profession’s focus on ESG goals and projects, increased transparency of salaries, quotas and make efforts to improve gender diversity at senior levels for women. For example, we recently dissected the Bar Standard Board’s 2022 report on ‘Income at the Bar – by Gender and Ethnicity’ which found that women barristers, on average, earn nearly 50% less than their male counterparts, in LawCareers.Net News.

One thing is clear, law firms can no longer get away with hiding behind a woman going on maternity leave as a reason for lack of promotions because hybrid working has now made the impossible possible. The legal sector is not immune to change, if it wants to be, it can drive it.

To stay up to date with the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, visit LawCareers.Net’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG.

Christianah Babajide (she/her) is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.