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What Does Diversity Look Like For Women in Law?

Gender diversity is a hot topic among legal professionals, with discussions of intersectionality and diversity at leadership levels being placed at the forefront of these conversations. After the publication of the Harvey John Diversity, Equity & Inclusion eBook, we wanted to explore what our data revealed to us about diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal sector. 

How Many Women Work In The Legal Sector?

The SRA’s 2021 diversity survey provided statistics of 52% of lawyers being reported as women; this is similar to our DE&I survey, which reported  higher numbers at 65.4% of respondents as women. These figures are both higher than the UK workforce average, with the Economy2030 report, ‘Begin Again?’, saying that ‘women now make up almost 48 per cent of the workforce, up from 47 per cent in 2019’.

This suggests that women in law are overrepresented by around 4 to 17.4%. The legal sector would appear to be largely female-dominated by these figures, but things get more complicated when you consider other influential factors.

Intersectionality Across Law

Intersectionality is defined as: ‘the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage’.

In other words, intersectionality refers to the various crossover points between different facets of one’s identity – race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, age, or class – and how those crossover points can lead to a different experience and understanding of discrimination than if one were to consider one facet alone.

Though there’s been an increase in awareness and discussion of intersectionality and its relation to diversity, it’s hard to assess intersectionality in prior years. Though there are tools, like the SRA’s Law Firms Diversity Data Tool, these tools don’t allow us to take an intersectional look at diversity.

However, through the Harvey John DE&I survey, we can take a look at the cross-section of our respondents:

Gender and Ethnicity

Compared to the general UK population, there are definitely improvements the legal sector could make to aid representation. Comparing population demographics from the UK 2021 census, we see that while the UK population is 4% Black, only 2.0% of our female respondents described themselves as Black. Similarly, the UK population is 9.2%, but we saw just 5.9% of female respondents describe themselves as Asian.

These numbers may not come as a surprise. Needing to fight against stereotypes associated with women that feed into unconscious biases, it may be harder for Black and Asian women to gain a seat at the table. These stereotypes may also limit the sectors of law they can enter, as they may be assumed to not have the skills or personality traits desired for the role, as they’re more likely to be stereotyped as ‘hostile, aggressive […]’ or ‘domineering, cold, calculating […]’

According to a 2022 report by Fawcett, ‘61% of women of colour [say] that they have changed one or more of the following […], compared with 44% of white women:

  • the language or words they use (37%)
  • the topics they talk about (37%)
  • their hairstyle (26%)
  • the food they eat (28%)
  • and even their names (22%) at work

This report goes on to add that the most likely demographic to change was Black women of African heritage, with 54% reporting they changed their clothes, 50% changing the language they used, 46% changing the topics they spoke about, 39% changing their hairstyle, and 29% changing their accent.

There’s no quick fix, but raising awareness of the unique issues that women of colour face in the legal sector would be a good place to start. Similarly, mentoring or networking groups would present a good opportunity to break down stereotypes and discuss issues they experience in the workplace with a trusted senior member of staff. 

Gender and Class

The SRA 2021 survey reports that 58% of lawyers are from a professional socio-economic background, whereas the national average is 37%. Similarly, 23% of lawyers attended a fee-paying school, compared to just 7.5% nationally. Of our female respondents, 64.7% self-described as middle class, and a further 2.0% self-described as upper class. 

These figures aren’t especially surprising, given that to become a solicitor you’d have needed to complete the LPC, a notoriously expensive process, ranging anywhere from £7,850 to £17,950. The introduction of the SQE was put forth as a cheaper option to becoming a solicitor. It offers cheaper fees for its two exams – £4,115 total – but this is still a consequential amount of money for many. As both these options are self-funded, unless a scholarship, grant, or training contract is covering the costs, this puts a massive financial burden on aspiring solicitors. Given that “women earn 17.9 per cent less an hour than men,” this financial burden may simply be unaffordable for some women.

The SRA’s July 2022 SQE pass rate report provided data on applicants’ demographics. Female applicants accounted for 63% of all applicants, achieving a 52% pass rate.

Only 14% of applicants were from a working-class background, and of that 14%, 52% passed the SQE1. Comparatively, 52% were from a professional background, with a pass rate of 57%. This would suggest that there are still issues with accessibility for those of a lower socio-economic background.

However, the SQE does seem to hold more promise at diversifying the class in the legal sector. SQE exam prep courses aren’t mandatory, unlike the LPC, so those who are willing to put in the commitment to self-study can avoid paying for the prep courses. The SQE also promotes working alongside your study, so there’s less financial strain as you can earn a salary while studying (and have it count towards qualifying).

Gender and Disability

In June 2021, approximately 28.5 million people across the UK are in employment, with roughly 4.4 million of those reporting at least one disability. This means that people with disabilities make up 15.4% of the UK workforce. But how does this compare with the legal sector?

The SRA reports 5% of lawyers are disabled – a considerable increase from the 1% reported in 2019. However, this doesn’t let us consider a gender split. When looking at our DE&I respondents, Law fared better than some of our other sectors – Tax, Treasury, and Accounting & Finance – regarding disability. 

7.8% of the women who responded to our survey reported that they had a disability; by contrast, 0% of our female tax respondents reported a disability. But this is still just over half of the average of disabled people in work in the UK. 

While this is promising, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In the podcast, Not All Lawyers Have Law Degrees, Demi Rixon was asked, in her final stage interview, ‘how did you get a first-class honours if you’re disabled?’, and she responded with ‘like everyone else.’ This kind of question highlights the stereotype that The Disability Museum defines as ‘People with disabilities are different from fully human people; they are partial or limited people, in an “other” and lesser category.’ She further discusses how available roles suddenly dried up or closed when she declared her disability. 

This suggests that disabled lawyers are being driven away from the profession before having a chance to enter it – from rude questions to discrimination, they have much higher barriers of entry. Demi has some advice on how to find the right law firm for your career and disability which is worth a read when looking for a new role or trying to find your first legal job. 

There are some signs of improvement, particularly around neurodiversity. The Legal Cheek has had articles in 2017, 2020, and most recently 2022, discussing what it’s like to be neurodiverse in the profession, and trying to break down the stigma through open dialogue. However, even the lawyers trying to start the dialogue are aware of how it could affect them; in the 2022 article, Concetta Scrimshaw, a then-trainee-solicitor, said that she ‘[doesn’t] know any openly autistic lawyers ‘ maybe this is […] due to perceived stigma, or because they think it will hamper their career.’

Though the dialogue is happening, there is still the perception that being open about disabilities may hamper your career. But Concetta goes on to say that ‘statistically speaking, there will be other autistic and neurodiverse individuals in the legal profession’, and there may be more people who are disabled but don’t feel comfortable openly discussing it.

Gender and Gender Identity

One aspect of intersectionality that is particularly hard to investigate is gender identity, as there isn’t much historical data available. While Harvey John’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion survey did include a non-binary option when choosing gender, we did not make a distinction between cisgender and transgender, which limits our insights into diversity between sex and gender identity. 

The SRA’s survey only began to broaden its survey questions in 2017, including an option for those who identified as transgender. This results in limited data before 2017. Bolt Burdon Kemp states that ‘With less than 1% of the UK population likely to be transgender, the results [of SRA’s survey] suggest that transgender people are overrepresented in the law industry [as] 2% of participants said they were transgender in 2019’. The publication of the 2021 UK Census provides more recent statistics: 0.5% of participants have a gender that differs from their sex, with 0.1% identifying as transgender women. The SRA’s survey shows 1.0% of lawyers identify as having a gender that differs from their sex, this indicates a high level of representation of gender identities in the legal sector. Notably, however, the SRA’s figure has actually declined since 2019, when 1.9% of lawyers have a gender different to their sex.

Diversity at a Partner Level

The SRA’s diversity survey found that 61% of all solicitors were female, but only 35% of Partners identified as women. By comparison, women made up 66.7% of our Partner level respondents.

We can put this percentage difference down to those who were responding to each survey. The SRA’s data is reported to them directly by the law firms, whereas we rely on individuals to fill out the survey.

That’s not to say there’s been no improvement; it’s just not quite such an impressive jump. Based on SRA data, the gap is closing, though slowly, with a 1% increase in female Partners between 2020 and 2021. 

While there are some signs of improvement, progression is perhaps slower than desired. This is perhaps best reflected when going over our data. Of our Legal sector respondents who identified as female, 76.5% felt that a lack of diversity at their workplace impacted progression. Men came in slightly higher, at 76.9%. However, 51.0% of women and 38.5% of men felt that they’d been personally affected by the lack of diversity. This suggests that while men do feel progression is impacted by the levels of diversity, their own experience of the workplace is less likely to face that impact.

One of the most suggested measures to improve diversity in the workplace was to increase diversity at a senior level. 

But how do we do this? If women aren’t applying for the roles, or aren’t recommended by other colleagues, how do we encourage this change?

Here are some of our, and our respondents, suggestions:

  • Be more open-minded about flexible working styles, patterns, and hours. 9% of women have to leave their jobs due to caring responsibilities, compared to 5% of men. But during the first year of the CoronaVirus Pandemic, the Economy2030 report, ‘Begin Again?’, reports that “Among adults aged 25-44, labour force participation […] is up by 1.8 percentage points among women”, which could at least partially be attributed “to the effect of homeworking”. It’s no secret that women take on a majority of caring responsibilities in the home, so allowing for greater flexibility can help retain staff who need to manage those responsibilities.
  • Have more programmes to help women to increase their confidence when applying for senior roles. This can be through Partner mentoring, professional development courses, leadership training, and bringing more women in on complex matters to boost confidence and experience.
  • Offer more transparency about diversity and inclusion statistics. Providing demographic statistics, gender pay gaps, boardroom gender gaps and an intersectional breakdown of the firm’s demographics will help shine a light on areas in need of improvements
  • Limit internal referrals of external candidates, and focus on internal promotion. Given that women make up a majority of junior positions, focusing on internal promotion will help diversify male-dominated senior positions.

But these are just a few suggestions to help at a Partner level. But more can be done across the entire workplace.

Diversity Across The Workplace

Nothing is going to fix this overnight. However, there are things you can encourage your firm to do to improve workplace diversity:

  • Create diversity-focused networking groups. This helps connect people to others who have faced similar challenges, so they can problem-solve together. Some firms already have networking groups in place, but often need to raise awareness of these groups, as new staff may not be aware of them.
  • Financially support the qualification costs for those in underrepresented groups. As one of our respondents puts it “the fees are exorbitant and reduce talent from those with diverse backgrounds”, so supporting the cost of these fees can alleviate the financial burden from underrepresented groups.
  • Similarly, create mentoring programs at all levels. This can be internal, by encouraging more senior lawyers to mentor junior lawyers that are in a minority group, or external, through mentoring programs like LegalGeek and Black Lawyers Matter.
  • Proactively address workplace culture issues. In a 2022 Leopard Solutions survey of 200 American female lawyers who left their roles in the prior two years, 90% cited workplace culture as their primary reason for quitting. A poor workplace environment will cause issues with the retention of diverse talent.
  • Publish a public commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, including goals, targets, what steps are being taken, and numbers and figures relating to diversity. This ensures that all members of the organisation are on the same page about what is expected of them regarding DE&I. It also helps to attract future candidates to the organisation, as they can see the active steps being taken to improve the firm. Finally, since the details are publicly available, it ensures you’re held accountable and aren’t just paying lip service or ticking a diversity quota box.
  • Offer greater flexibility with work hours, patterns, and styles. This was mentioned for Partners, but this needs to be applied at all levels, to help with the retention of staff. Of the Leopard Solutions survey respondents, “82% [blame] lack of flexibility and work/life balance” as their reason for leaving their role.
  • Join initiatives to support diversity. Some examples are PRIME (which encourages social mobility in the legal profession), 10,000 Black Interns (which helps provide black students and graduates with paid internships), Valuable500 and Disability Confident (which both aim to improve workplace access for people with disabilities), but there are so many more to get involved in.
  • Regular DE&I training at all levels of the organisation. This helps ensure that every member of staff is aware of unconscious biases, how these affect hiring and the workplace culture and take active steps to prevent them. It’s not just HR involved in hiring, so it shouldn’t just be HR involved with DE&I.
  • Use recruitment practices that encourage diversity. This could be through contextual recruitment and blind CVs, or by committing to recruiters that take a proactive approach to DE&I recruitment.

Networks

One suggestion that we saw repeated throughout our survey was better access to or awareness of networks specifically aimed at those in minority groups.

While some law firms do offer internal networks, many don’t. It’s definitely worth encouraging your firm to create and/or promote its networking groups. In the meantime, we’ve created a list of some of the networks we’ve found that could offer support to women in the legal profession.

The Law Society Networks:

Legal Professional Networks:

Non-Legal Networks:

Can’t find a network you like?

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For a more in-depth look at Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the legal sector, download the Harvey John DE&I eBook.

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Check out our Media Hub for more Industry Insights to see what changes are taking place across your sector.

Alex Bull is the Research and Content Consultant for the legal division of Harvey John.

For expert advice on how to get the best out of your Legal career, contact Hayley Rose for recruitment of jobs within the legal sector, both in-house and private, across the South East and beyond.

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