Somaya Ouazzani: Why do fewer women move in law than men?

Somaya Ouazzani, CEO & founder of Mimoza Fleur, discusses why female lawyers move firm less often than men, in Legal Week.

What’s behind the fact that female lawyers jump firms less often?

That female lawyers—especially those at the senior end and partners—move far less than their male counterparts. This has long since been the case but never more so than amidst this COVID-19 pandemic. The systemic and structural inequalities that exist in the legal industry ensure that moves for females are much harder to pursue and secure. COVID-19 has made this much worse.

At the best of times, women tend not to explore opportunities for new positions as readily as men. Typically, women choose to make their first move later in their careers.

There are lots of reasons for this and a common reason cited is loyalty. Females are—empirically—more altruistic and team-focused in their thinking. In these very challenging times, there is an event greater sense of duty and loyalty. Reservations about leaving team members and firms in the lurch is a big factor, often causing female lawyers to forego better opportunities.

Linked closely to this is what I call ‘gratitude tax’ otherwise known as a sense of gratitude that female candidates—especially those at the senior end—feel. It’s that self-imposed pressure not to disappoint their superiors because of how well they’ve been treated and/or how good their superiors/law firms have treated them.

On the other hand, male candidates are, empirically speaking, much less emotional and more ambitious in their career goals; often pursuing opportunities that offer a material career benefit as part and parcel of career growth where strong professional relationships do not come in the way of this.

One’s risk appetite is another big influencer.  Women tend to move later in their careers, preferring to gain more experience, greater exposure and visibility before propelling themselves into something better.  The need to be resolutely confident about a move is even greater with all the market uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Anxieties about job security; concerns about finding the time to commit to a job search whilst juggling the day job, home schooling, working from home etc., make the prospect for many untimely.

Whilst there is something to be said for many senior female lawyers struggling to find the bandwidth in their lives to pursue much else at the moment, needing confidence first, and an overly heightened sensitivity to risk, can be very career limiting and one of the most obvious manifestations of women standing in their own way.

Men, on the other hand, are more prepared to take risks and breaking down what it is that they are really good at and know how to play to their strengths with great energy and enthusiasm. This energy and enthusiasm can often disguise and/or distract employers from the deficits in their legal exposure, experience and training.

Arguably, if the legal world was better structured to allow female lawyers, from an early stage, to more easily recognise their strengths and compete on an equal footing, then senior female lawyers might have more confidence in the process and legal industry in general.

Sponsors also play a big part and can make a material difference to the direction a lawyer’s career takes.  It is well known that male candidates can more readily access mentors and sponsors, whereas female lawyers can struggle to access the support. The struggles in this regard are often caused by the fact that there are far fewer females in senior positions in law, especially in the City, in turn impacting the pool of female mentors and sponsors available. It is well known that many female mentees prefer to have a female sponsor/mentor, not least because of how relatable their mentor/sponsors experiences might be.

The pandemic and working from home have made these relationships much harder to work successfully and, many report on how this has caused so many mentor/mentee relationships to fall by the wayside which is also hurting female lawyers’ career growth.

Women are also turning down new opportunities much more so than men, and more so now than ever before. Institutional barriers, negative mind sets, and a fear of exposure cause women to ‘lean in,’ much less so than men. Even after demonstrating what it is that they can bring to the table, women can experience a great crisis of confidence; a panic about being able to ‘do it all over again’ and prove themselves once more. The pandemic and working from home have seriously compounded these fears.

Senior female lawyers are also struggling with a tremendous sense of guilt right now. Guilt that they are not giving enough time to their families, that they are not keeping up with home schooling, that they are not supporting their families as much as they should because of all the demands placed upon them professionally.

The stark reality is that all of these stresses and concerns will be intensified as a result of a move because of how much one feels they have to prove. Why then would these already very stretched, heavily stressed female lawyers put themselves under more pressure and set themselves up for what they think is a high likelihood of failure?

Demanding deadlines, unmanageable hours, challenging billing targets can make it extremely hard for women to feel they have the structural support and environment they need to thrive alongside running a home, managing a family, having dependents and so on. It is no secret that a woman’s career peak coincides with her peak child-bearing age. Successfully balancing the two is no mean feat and all too often a reason why so many women refuse to take up a new career challenge, especially in a global pandemic which has completely turned on its head the way they work.

The legal world has adapted well to agile working. Law firms are realising how a smart and strategic recruitment strategy will help them weather this turbulent storm, but there is still a lot more room for growth when it comes to understanding supporting more women pursue favourable career moves in law and this begins with understanding why so few women move in the first place.

The business case for diversity and inclusion is a powerful and profitable one.  The sooner the legal industry properly understands this, the sooner we’ll start to hear of many more exciting, high-profile, senior female moves.

Somaya’s article was published in Legal Week on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, and can be found here.

 

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