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Underrepresentation of women solicitors in leadership roles

By Leona Samuda 

Today the presence of women in the legal profession of England and Wales stands at an all-time high and they now represent an unparalleled majority of 52% of all lawyers in law firms. Particularly amongst solicitors, the number of women with practicing certificates exceeds that of men for the first time in history. Such developments are particularly app at this time, considering the recent celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. It is symbolic of how far women have come in their century-long plight to become ‘persons’ worthy of their presence in law, from their absolute exclusion in the early 20th Century to the significant barriers they faced once admitted. The legal profession has, over the years, under the premise of rightful representation of the society it serves, reported a steady influx of women entering the law. However, a meticulous inspection of the statistics reveals significant discrepancies in their representation, illuminating the fact that they are merely concentrated in lower levels of the profession. Even the most dynamic efforts at modernisation have been unable to produce results of establishing gender equality across the whole of the legal field. The number of women in senior positions is alarmingly low as ‘they do not occupy leadership roles commensurate with their qualification and experience’ and ‘the gap between female partners and female solicitors remains significant.’

Studies show that sexism is one of the main contributory factors responsible for female underrepresentation in leadership roles, creating blockages to their progression. Its effects and are extremely widespread, influencing women’s career trajectories as well as their personal and professional lives. The presence of different types of sexism contributes to its multidimensional impact and either overtly commits discrimination by deploying an 'obviously unequal treatment of women relative to men,’ or functions subtly, where sexism is purposely hidden from view. (Benokraitis, Feagin 1999) Overt sexism therefore, comprising of blatant sexist conduct, is closely linked to its subtle counterpart, and their relationship ensures the aim of subordination of women into inferior positions and their exclusion from seniority and power.

One of the biggest contemporary complexities in the area of sexism in legal workplace lies in the fact that subtle sexism, considerably more problematic in its identification than its subtle counterpart, is largely successful at evading attempts aimed at its eradication. By adapting to changes in society, where the status quo of overt sexism is no longer tolerated, it assumes new, hidden appearance, easily capable of concealment. Its transformation leads to a mistaken belief that sexism is in decline, when in fact, it is merely adapting to the current climate, preserving itself by becoming more subtle and ambiguous. The subsequent result is the reproduction of sexist ideals, mentality and behaviour within the setting insofar as its penetration into seemingly legitimate working policies and practices, which, despite their theoretical roots in legality, have derogatory and discriminatory effects on women in practice.

Women’s equal presence in higher echelons of the profession is prevented by a number of resulting effects. These range from stereotypical assumptions relating to their perceived low performance, commitment, value and inability to represent good leaders, to career detriment suffered as a result of their utilisation of maternity leave and flexible working policies. Indeed, the successful application of policies is inevitably skewed by structural and/or discriminatory issues in the workplace, resulting in unfair promotion process in which they are unable to fairly compete for partnership. Owed to the conflict between their external caring duties, dictated by stereotypical gender-assigned roles, and employment responsibilities, they are assumed less committed, dedicated and driven in the contest for partnership, effectively resulting in their low representation in leadership roles.