Solicitors see through the glass ceiling

A survey of the top 100 law firms suggests that women are still not being given enough opportunities when it comes to the profession's most senior jobs. Stephen Ward reports
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The Independent Online
Deeply entrenched sexism and complacency among solicitors are still stopping women from getting a fair share of the best jobs, a survey of the top 100 firms suggests.

The Law Society had argued that it was only a matter of time before the growing equality of numbers of entrants led to the corresponding equal number of partners. This view is shown to be wrong by the figures uncovered by a pressure group within the profession, Young Women Lawyers.

On average it takes between six to eight years to become a partner, and 44 per cent of entrants to the profession nine years ago were women. Yet only 25 per cent of new partners appointed this year are women.

Clare McGlynn, co-author of the report, is a former teaching fellow in law at Durham University, and, after qualifying as a solicitor in September, will become a lecturer at Newcastle University law school. "It is clear from our research that it is no longer enough for firms to argue that in time the large numbers of women at the bottom of the profession will climb to the top," she says. "Progress has been made, but concerted action must be taken within firms to ensure that women receive equal opportunities to reach senior levels of the profession."

Of the firms surveyed, 58 per cent returned the questionnaires. Nine out of 10 firms replying were complacent, saying they did not consider there was a shortage of women eligible for partnership. Where they commented, they said they thought the position would improve with time.

There were signs that the solicitors' profession was making some efforts to encourage women. Almost half the firms provide maternity benefits in excess of the statutory minimum, although many firms have no provision for maternity terms for partners, and each partner has to negotiate her own arrangements.

Just over a third of respondents said there had been an incident of sexual harassment or discrimination in their firms. Of these, three-quarters had dealt with the incident formally, indicating it was treated seriously. Nearly all of the firms that had not dealt with any sexual harassment or discrimination say they think it is because there is no problem in their firm. Ms McGlynn says this suggests complacency.

'Soliciting Equality', Young Women Lawyers, 7 Hutton Court, 3 Bedser Close, London SE11 5BE, pounds 3 plus an A4 sae.

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