Influential women in IP: ‘male-shaped’ career path blocks women


Saman Javed

Influential women in IP: ‘male-shaped’ career path blocks women

Christina Blacklaws, the immediate past president of The Law Society, delivered the keynote speech at WIPR’s Influential Women in IP conference today, September 12.

During Blacklaws’ tenure, she developed and led a programme focussed on women in leadership in law, the results of which she shared with an audience from across the IP industry. 

“Gender equality is good for everybody, it’s not just an issue for women, it’s an issue for 100% of us. Gender equality equates profitability and there are a wealth of stats to support this,” Blacklaws told delegates. 

Women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms, according to 2017 statistics from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. However, when you look at seniority, the differences become apparent. In 2017, only 33% of women were partners. 

Blacklaws said the programme focused on leadership because “the problem is not entry or attracting women to the profession, but [that] women are prevented from progressing in their careers”.

She said that in the last 18 months, the law society engaged with nearly 15,000 legal professionals globally, carrying out surveys on gender inequality.

One topic of discussion was the barriers to career progression for women. She said that 52% of respondents said the main barrier was unconscious, or conscious bias.

Additionally, 49% said the “unacceptable work-life balance that was demanded to reach senior levels” was a key barrier, while 46% described the law profession as “male shaped”, and that the routes to progression are male-oriented.

Of those surveyed, 60% said they were aware of a pay gap issue within their own organisation.

But, more positively, 41% of respondents felt that they benefit from regular performance and development reviews and 43% reported having diversity and inclusion training consistently enforced. 

Diversity roundtables 

The Law Society survey formed part of the project, along with two toolkits which supported more than 250 roundtables in 22 jurisdictions.

From domestic roundtables, The Law Society gleaned a range of insights, including the idea that women were not fitting into the traditional image of a business leader, which tends to favour characteristics that are traditionally ‘male’.

Many women at these roundtables talked of how “corrosive” and “demoralising” the impact of assumption had been, where they had been presumed to be a note-taker, tea girl, or in a more junior role than their male counterparts, Blacklaws said.

The roundtables found the problem was even worse for women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

“While there is a push for women at the top, there isn’t a push for ethnic minorities. As you go higher and higher, colour seems to fade,” she added.

Another key problem discussed at the roundtables, was a lack of transparency when it comes to gender pay gaps, “which prevents and undermines accountability and the identification of pay discrepancies”.

Finding a solution

The project also produced a Women in Law Pledge backed by the government and all legal representative bodies, which pointed out potential solutions to work towards a more equal workplace.

These include the introduction of mentoring and sponsorship programmes, as well as engaging men in the equality debate.

Additionally, she said businesses should work to place diversity at the centre of their planning and encourage greater transparency.

One practical element that could be introduced, is training on conscious and unconscious biases, which would teach individuals how to recognise their own biases and make sure they aren’t acting on them when making assumptions about people.

“We need a cultural shift and for that we all need to be part of the solution,” she said.

WIPR’s Influential Women in IP conference took place today, September 12, in London. 

Women in IP 2019, The Law Society, Christina Blacklaws, gender equality, leadership