Election 97/women. Smashing the glass ceiling

While Lord Woolf captured the headlines at the third Woman Lawyer Conference in London this month with his proposals regarding a 'fast track' to the top for women, a remark from the floor passed relatively unnoticed.

Alexandra Marks, a partner at Linklaters & Paines, announced that the City firm said it would shortly be implementing a policy providing for flexible working for partners.

Although a number of positive initiatives were aired, some grievances were also raised. Freshfields partner Harriet Creamer commented that with the recent intake of partners, the percentage of women partners at that firm is now just under 10 per cent.

She suggested that a special fund be set up “to implement real equal opportunities policies”, which received support – as well as a commitment to provide funds – from those attending the conference. This issue coincided with the launch of the equal opportunities unit at the conference, which was set up by both sides of the profession to use existing mechanisms to promote equal opportunities.

The consensus from the panel, which included Equal Opportunities chairwoman Kamlesh Bahl and Judith Mayhew, director of education and training at Wilde Sapte, was that such initiatives were to be welcomed, provided they were coordinated and consolidated, with the caveat from Mayhew that equal opportunities action should be focused on “getting the right attitude, which should be done at recruitment and training level”.

“You have to get at the decision-makers, who influence career patterns. Money alone is not enough,” Mayhew stressed.

Laura Cox QC wryly commented that this issue did not just affect the legal profession. “Some women look through the glass ceiling and do not like what they see,” she said. But matters are being addressed with moves afoot at the Bar to implement systems which would include monitoring the allocation of work in chambers and the comparative fees for such work, and this will eventually be used to develop examples of best practice.

Practical matters were addressed at the conference with five simultaneous workshops entitled “Breaking traditions: the myths about equal opportunities”, “Rainmaking: it's different for girls”, “Women as leaders: superman and sleeping beauty”, “Maternity, paternity and the big myth” and “Strategies for when things go wrong”.

Conference organiser Margaret McCabe commented: “A number of initiatives have already come to the fore since the conference.

“Given the response to the five simultaneous conferences – including one on how to pursue grievances without ruining your career – a proposal has been put forward that the workshops should also be run before the conference next year, which it is hoped will reach a much wider audience.”