Recession is no excuse for discrimination

Clare McConnell, chair of the Association of Women Solicitors and a partner at Stephenson Harwood

The business of law faces many challenges. Times are not easy and the challenges grow by the day. The best we can do is to ensure our firms do not fail and to lay strong foundations for future growth when economic circumstances change for the better.

So how does this affect women solicitors in practice today? The first thing we need to be mindful of, as suggested by the ­Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, is that ‘special pleading by various interest groups’ is going to be met with scepticism. Special pleading by women solicitors is therefore not the order of the day. And rightly so. Special pleading does not help lay strong foundations for future growth, nor does it help businesses in the short to medium term. Special pleading is, in fact, inimical to future success. This is because it is not based on proper economic considerations; it is based on neither your talent nor your experience. Proceeding in this way will not provide a sustainable model for economic growth in the long term.

But we must be careful. A justified scepticism about special pleading must not divert us from a proper approach to furthering the progress of women in the legal profession. It must not lead us to view measures that benefit the profession as a whole improperly. Steps that can and should be taken to ensure that historic inequalities that affect women are eliminated sooner rather than later are steps that are right to take now. They are right and just ones to take because they ensure the profession as a whole is as strong as it can be now and in the future.

A concrete example of the care that is needed was given in The Guardian recently. On 16 March it reported the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as saying that the economy was too fragile to support greater steps towards ensuring pay equality generally. Pay inequality remains a feature of women solicitors’ experience throughout their careers. Four days later, however, Nicola Brewer of the EHRC clarified the position. She wrote that, rather than being a step too far, ­furthering the cause of equal pay was consistent with supporting a strong economy. In other words, supporting equal pay was not simply special pleading, but in fact made sound business sense because creating equal treatment for all ensures that the very best talent is developed and retained.

The challenge for women solicitors is to ensure that they are treated as fairly as everyone else. It is to ensure that decisions are made on business grounds. And in this we have much to offer. Women solicitors well know how cost-effective flexible and home working arrangements are. They reduce practices’ base costs. They militate against presenteeism while increasing efficient working practices. They ensure that talent is retained and developed. All of these benefit law practices. The challenge for women is to continue to convince them that such practices make good business sense. The challenge for employers is to recognise this and to acknowledge that such practices will help them win the war for talent and retain excellent lawyers.

Additionally, the challenge for law firms is to ensure that other practices that militate against the retention and development of women solicitors are eliminated. There can be no genuine business case for discrimination. On the contrary, the business case for equality of opportunity for women solicitors has been made consistently over the years. It must be accepted as such and acted on. Developing and retaining the best talent ensures the future development of the legal services sector. It will not develop as well as it should unless and until we recognise this.

We must accept the business case for the fair treatment of women ­solicitors in the profession and recognise that the credit crunch is not an excuse to sit back and put off today what ought to have been done yesterday and what is necessary for the success of all tomorrow.