Why do so few women move in law?

As we come to the end of 2019 we thought it a good point to review the recruitment projects we have been involved with this year. In doing so, very quickly it became clear how few female solicitors and barristers we have moved this year. To establish why, we analysed the relevant candidate data we hold and in doing so deduced four key reasons why women move much less frequently than men.
Without dismissing the nuances of this discussion, and at risk of oversimplifying things, we have summarised – in no particular order – the four key reasons why we believe women in law move much less than men.

  1. Women tend not to explore opportunities for new positions as readily as men Anecdotally, women choose to make their first move later in their career and typically, at around 4 years PQE for solicitors, and significantly later for barristers working in chambers. Very often female candidates want to stay loyal to the firms they have trained at or firms that employed them as an NQ after qualifying. A sense of gratitude and appreciation makes the female candidates we’ve worked with very reluctant to pursue opportunities even when they offer discernible career benefits. Essentially, female candidates feel much more pressure not to disappoint their superiors unlike the male candidates we work with. Male candidates, empirically speaking, are much less emotional with their decision making and far more ambitious in their career goals; often pursuing opportunities that offer a material career benefit as part and parcel of career growth. Seemingly, male lawyers strategise their career moves and career growth earlier and more assertively than female lawyers.
  2. Women tend to move later in their careers More often than male lawyers, female practitioners speak of wanting to gain more experience, greater exposure and visibility before making a career move; especially their first one. Needing confidence first 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 so much better and more logical when it comes to breaking down what it is that they are really good at and play to their strengths with great energy and enthusiasm. This energy and enthusiasm can often disguise and/or distract employers from the deficits in exposure, experience and training. Male candidates are also more easily able to access mentors and sponsors that will help with career acceleration, whereas female lawyers can struggle to access the same sponsorship and mentorship. The struggles in this regard are often caused by the fact that there are far less women in senior positions in law, especially in the City, and therefore fewer female mentors and sponsors to access (there are many reasons why mentees and junior lawyers prefer to have same-sex mentors and/or sponsors, an explanation of which goes beyond the scope of this article) to the career detriment of too many talented female lawyers.
  3. Women turn down new opportunities much more so than men. Whilst much more of a problem at the senior end, statistically, women turn down new opportunities more often than men. Institutional barriers, negative mind sets, and a fear of exposure causes 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. Anxieties about how well they’ll perform in a new team, at a new firm, and with new bosses causes them undue and unfounded concerns. Stresses about not being ‘lucky enough’ a second time around will cause major disruption to their career development and often be a reason why women don’t accept offers as frequently as men. Anecdotally, women are also much more risk averse and understandably so given that, empirically, they are more often than men having to balance work and the bulk of pressures within the home. 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.
  4. Men seemingly secure new positions more often than women. A controversial statement that warrants an article of its own, men do appear to secure new positions more often than women. There are countless reasons why this may be so but in our experience – particularly at the senior end of the legal profession – the principle reasons relate to men generally being better able to manage interview nerves, speak up their connections, networks, clients and, ultimately, sell themselves. Yet, unconscious bias also has a lot to answer for when it comes to selling one’s self. Sadly, interviewers can still perceive female confidence as arrogance and female career ownership as overly ambitious, bossy thus forming (albeit wrongly) a view that such female candidates are not ‘team players.’ On the other hand, ambitious, confident and assertive male candidates are considered ‘leaders’, ‘energetic’, ‘innovative’ and a phrase we often hear “having a fire in their belly”.

All of these prejudices can make it extremely hard for female candidates to effectively prepare and present themselves in an interview. We have seen – firsthand – how extremely obstructive this can be to the development and progression of the legal profession as a whole. Such prejudices and unconscious bias are even more problematic for female lawyers of an ethnic minority background and/or those with a disability.

What are we doing about it?

We continue to support our clients to pursue diversity and inclusion at the heart of their recruitment and growth strategies. The very best talent can only be attracted and retained from diverse talent pools. The business case for diversity and inclusion is a powerful one. Diverse teams – in every sense – outperform those that are not and we have seen this time and again. Diverse teams also experience less upheaval and lower attrition. As the legal world slowly adapts to these more inclusive and diverse practices, lawyers must too embrace the opportunity such innovation brings by leaning in, speaking up and throwing their hats into the ring. We have seen – first hand – how extremely obstructive this can be to the development and progression of the legal profession as a whole. Such prejudices and unconscious bias are even more problematic for female lawyers of an ethnic minority background and/or those with a disability.

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