Gender discrimination remains “rife” in legal profession, research shows

updated on 27 February 2020

Close to 60% of women lawyers have experienced inappropriate gender-based comments from male colleagues or know other women who have, according to research by the First 100 Years Project.

As Legal Futures reports, the survey of 741 women working in the legal profession found that 46% of respondents did not complain about the discrimination that they or colleagues experienced because they were worried about the potential impact on their careers.

The report contains some damning responses. One associate said: “Women in my workplace are routinely discriminated against, harassed and then forced into silence if they complain. Diversity and ‘women’s initiatives’ are PR orientated – my firm is a supposed leader in these areas on paper, but it is a completely different story in practice.”

A law firm partner said: “I was promoted to partner in an all-male partnership. I felt I had to constantly justify my position, as some within the partnership hinted that I was only offered the role because they needed to have a female partner.”

“Gender discrimination is rife”, another partner responded. “The ‘boys’ network’ remains in full force, excluding women from networking opportunities and bullying them so that they feel inadequate and incapable.”

“When I announced my second pregnancy, a senior male said to me ‘Goodness, you didn’t keep your legs shut for long,’” said one barrister. 

Meanwhile, 28% said had considered leaving their jobs because of a lack of flexible working, showing that the legal profession continues to fail to accommodate family and caring responsibilities in too many cases – although there were also examples of supportive employers.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years Project, said: “Many organisations in the legal world are succeeding in creating an acceptable working environment, in which discrimination and harassment are not tolerated and family friendly working patterns are at least a possibility.

“This is proof that it can be done, yet it is clear that 100 years after women were first permitted to practise, they are still being held back. In some cases, they are being treated unlawfully by their employers and many are leaving a profession that they feel does not work for them.”

Reiterating her call for quotas to accelerate equality, Denis-Smith said: “Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far. I believe change sometimes needs to be forced.”