By: 4 March 2024
Achieving gender parity: challenges and solutions in the legal profession

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened the doors for women to join the legal profession in the UK over a century ago. Despite women now making up 53% of lawyers in legal practices across the UK, there remains a significant underrepresentation of women in senior roles.

Achieving gender parity at all levels requires the implementation of inclusive HR practices and transparency across the board in order to successfully cultivate a healthy workplace culture.

Anna Schiavetta, solicitor in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors, discusses the importance of inclusive HR practices in promoting a supportive workplace environment for women within the legal profession.

 

The law

The Equality Act 2010 (the Act) legally protects individuals from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. Within a workplace setting, diversity is focused on protecting characteristics under the Equality Act, including sex, age, disability, pregnancy, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Women are therefore protected under the Act.

 

An inclusive workplace culture

There are a number of challenges that are unique to the majority of women in the workplace that could hinder career growth in the legal profession. For instance, pregnancy related leave or illnesses, experiencing menopausal symptoms and child caring responsibilities.

To improve diversity, equality and inclusion, an employer must first identify the particular issues and challenges faced by women in the workplace and consider what they can do to remove any barriers and encourage a more inclusive workplace. Providing flexible arrangements, offering responsibility sharing opportunities or part-time roles can help women balance their personal life and job commitments. This will also attract and retain female employees facing these issues.

An employer should also ensure that they have effective policies and initiatives that appeal to women such as pay transparency, enhanced pay for maternity leave and diversity training programmes to deter discrimination and ensure equal opportunities for job applicants and employees.

 

Recruitment and training

Recruitment and training processes are crucial in order to create an inclusive workplace.

Broadening the candidate pool using diverse recruitment methods that align with advice from The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will help create a more inclusive workplace and highlight a commitment to fair employment practices. This applies to not only new employees but also existing employees for promotions.

HR teams and legal practices must continuously evaluate candidates against job specifications during recruitment. Prioritising merit-based selection is crucial for advancing equality, diversity and inclusion. In addition to this, employers must provide regular training to managers who are part of the recruitment process on equality policies and unconscious bias to ensure that the process is free from discrimination.

Training the wider workforce on equality policies is also important to ensure that employees understand both their own and their employer’s rights, duties and obligations whilst also helping to spread awareness and encourage inclusivity. These training sessions may include fostering inclusivity, recruitment and reporting procedures.

 

In practice, what are the potential implications?

From a practical perspective, employers run the risk of losing talent and will undoubtedly see a low retention rate of female employees. Having women in management positions can be a powerful motivator for existing employees. In addition, from a legal perspective, an employer will likely see a rise in discrimination claims being brought against it. This is a very costly process and can cause damage to a firm’s reputation too.

Anna, alongside the employment team at Blacks Solicitors, represented Maxine Lynskey in a discrimination case against Direct Line, alleging menopause-related disability discrimination. Maxine received nearly £65,000 in compensation when her manager denied a pay rise, citing underperformance due to menopausal symptoms like ‘brain fog’ and memory issues.

This case demonstrates the necessity for employers to fulfil their obligations by creating an inclusive workplace for women and highlights the costly and reputational repercussions if employers fail in their obligations.

 

Image: Anna Schiavetta, solicitor in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors.
Emma Cockings
Emma is the content editor for Yorkshire Legal News.