Opinion: Why equality is good for business

Opinion:  Why equality is good for businessWomen in law face a ‘concrete ceiling’ to their promotion prospects, according to the Equality and Human Rights ­Commission.

When I became a trainee in the City in 1983 just over 50 per cent of my ­contemporaries were female. The ­proportion of women entering law is much the same now. My elder daughter starts her training contract next year and her younger sister is likely to follow suit two years later. It would be good to think that in another 25 years’ time 50 per cent or more of equity partners in the City were female. Yet at present, despite more than 20 years’ of equal recruitment, women make up only about 11 per cent of equity partners in the City.

The reasons for the figures are complex. In the US a survey last year by the ­National Association of Women Lawyers found that only 16 per cent of equity ­partners at large law firms were women and they earned almost $90,000 (£51,100) less than their male ­counterparts. Harriet Harman’s draft Equality Bill will make the public sector more transparent in relation to pay and oblige law firms that supply the UK’s 100,000 public sector bodies to disclose their diversity policies. This will help.

If non-transferable paternity rights (‘use it or lose it’) were offered by firms or the state, that would assist women trying to ensure a more even share of the ­childcare workload at home. So might quotas. While few people like positive ­discrimination, it has certainly helped in Norway and Spain to require a fixed ­percentage of board posts to be filled by women, particularly since so many ­positions are filled via the ‘old boy’s club’ and so many very able women are ­overlooked. Even the credit crunch is helping, with nanny agencies reporting a surge in enquiries as women go back to work because money is needed at home.

The reasons why women don’t comprise 50 per cent of equity partners in the City are as follows:
• They tend to marry ‘up’, meaning that they earn less than their husbands. When it comes to a decision about whether one career will play second fiddle, the logical and economically sensible decision is that it should be the woman’s.
• Some women aren’t good at networking and being assertive in the workplace. They believe that working hard rather than working smart will get them noticed in the partnership stakes.
• To a limited extent some – but not most – firms will discriminate, whether ­consciously or unconsciously, on grounds of sex. However, in 25 years in law I’ve rarely seen discrimination at work. If women are good and can find and keep clients they rarely have problems. If one firm isn’t treating them right they can vote with their feet and take their clients with them, or they can work for themselves through their own law firms as I’ve done since 1994. The City is largely a ­meritocracy.

Does it matter that only 11 per cent of equity partners are female? It will matter if the Equality Bill means law firms aren’t allowed to gain business from 100,000 public sector bodies, which will instead flock to firms like mine, which are 100 per cent female.

However, in a business model that relies on large numbers of very talented people leaving so that a very small chosen few can become equity partners, it’s quite ­convenient if a good proportion leave to have babies. It clears the logjam.

What’s also needed is more women showing what fun a long, interesting legal career can be and how so very many of us combine it happily with large families (as do many men), that women and work isn’t a ‘problem’ but the best way many of us can spend worthwhile lives.