Firms buck UK equality trend

Firms buck UK equality trendOne of the biggest stories last week was the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) saying that the number of women in power and influence had dropped since its last survey five years ago.

The EHRC singled out the judiciary for criticism, but it didn’t survey the UK’s top commercial law firms or chambers. So we at The Lawyer thought we’d do their work for them.

The bar does okay – just about. As we revealed last month, the ratio of male to female tenants has remained steady at 3:1 for the past three years. No wonder the EHRC has predicted that the bench won’t change its mix anytime soon.

Back in March this year began a rolling blog on partnership promotions at the top UK law firms. A week into the process, when compiling the running total for the print edition, we had already noticed that women were suddenly becoming more visible in the promotions rounds. At Herbert Smith a third of its new partners were women, while at Olswang it was nearly half.

This was no blip. Our lead story today shows how that trend applies across the top 100 firms from The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report 2008. Nearly 20 per cent of all partners at the top 100 firms are now female.
It would be even more interesting if we knew how many of these women have children, of course. In the professional workplace it tends not to be a ­gender gap, but a maternity gap.

However, we can intuit one thing: flexible ­working practices have helped. Most firms can point to one or two senior women who have taken advantage of such schemes. That in itself is a mark of how much the debate has changed since the 1990s, because such women who work flexibly have almost become trophies; some even get profiled on their firms’ websites.

Most heartening of all, women are doing better than ever at getting into the equity – and this at a time when the number of equity partners across the top 100 law firms has actually dropped. Now, that’s another story…