Do women get a fair chance?

A new survey finds that female solicitors are pessimistic about their career prospects. Is their fear justified? Fiona Bawdon reports

Either female lawyers are paranoid or their male colleagues really are out to get them.

A recent survey into sex discrimination in the legal profession makes bleak reading. Women solicitors remain decidedly pessimistic about their current career and future prospects, it seems.

The legal recruitment consultant Daniel Bates asked 378 women in private firms across the country how they rated their prospects compared with those of their male counterparts.

Some 61 per cent of respondents said they didn't believe they had the same career opportunities as men; 32 per cent thought they were paid less than male colleagues doing the same job; and 60 per cent thought their promotion prospects were lower.

Of course, it is important to recognise the limitations of this kind of survey. The numbers were small, fewer than 400 out of a total legal profession of some 65,000, and it was only gauging perceptions, rather than objectively measurable fact. However, unless Daniel Bates inadvertently tracked down the only 378 militant feminists in an otherwise fairly moderate profession, its findings must at least raise some awkward questions.

According to Clare McGlynn, vice-chair of the Young Women Lawyers Group, which campaigns for equal opportunities, what is most worrying about this survey is the lack of optimism that things will improve. When previous studies have shown women failing to advance as rapidly as men, and in fewer senior positions, the response has always been that this will come. As the number of women entering the profession increases - and they now make up 50 per cent of solicitors under 30 - equality will naturally follow, it has been argued.

However, the women in the Daniel Bates survey don't seem convinced. In answer to the question: "Are you optimistic about equality of opportunity for women in the legal profession over the next five years?" 49 per cent said they were optimistic, but almost as many, 46 per cent, were not.

Ms McGlynn says: "Obviously, a lot of women don't think things are going to get better." She adds that the findings should be given weight, even if they are only measuring perceptions. "What are those perceptions based on? They must be based on their experiences."

However, Timothy Bates, managing director of the recruitment agency that carried out the survey, suspects the problem is more one of communication than discrimination. There may be a gap between women's perceptions and the way they are really treated by firms, he believes. "I don't believe that law firms do discriminate, but they are certainly not getting the message across that they value their lady lawyers."

There is no evidence among the candidates from which his agency recruits of women being paid less than their male counterparts. Earnings are invariably related to fees brought in, Mr Bates says.

Jane Whittaker, a partner at City firm Macfarlanes and former chairman (sic) of the Association of Women Solicitors, agrees. But if women believe they are earning less than the men, they ought to be kicking up a fuss at their firms, she says. "If that's what they think, why are they putting up with it?"

However, evidence from the United States suggests that discrimination may be more complex and insidious than just a question of whether women's pay reflects the fees they generate.

A study of 3,000 men and women lawyers in America (Sex Discrimination in the Legal Profession by Bernard Lent and David Laband) identifies a number of subtle ways in which women are treated differently - all of which may affect their ability to generate fees in the first place. Such "discrimination at the margins", as it is called, includes differences in the level of control over cases handled; the amount of secretarial assistance available, the degree of personal responsibility for cases and access to clients and marketing opportunities.

Ms McGlynn, who has written an analysis of the American research, says that though the impact of any single act of discrimination may be insignificant and difficult to prove, the cumulative impact may be enough aparrently to legitimise denying promotion or career advancement to women. It may also deter women from seeking promotion, if they believe the odds are stacked against them.

Ms McGlynn admits that while findings like those in the Daniel Bates survey need to be highlighted, they can be a double-edged sword. The general gloominess may deter other women from applying for promotion.

Apart from being a self-fulfilling prophecy, failure to put themselves forward allows law firms to delude themselves that women do not want the same kind of advancement as men. This is a view typified by Martin Mears, the Law Society president, who has a mission to root out the "viper of political correctness" wherever he spies it.

Mr Mears was not available to comment on the latest survey findings, but in earlier correspondence with the Young Women Lawyers Group, he wrote: "I do know a number of women solicitors with families and, in general, they don't wish to elbow and push their way forward in the way that their male colleagues feel compelled to do. In any event, my view is that it is entirely right that women should put their families first."

No doubt Mr Mears is only articulating what many men and women in the legal profession honestly believe. But Ms McGlynn fears that his many public pronouncements attacking the "discrimination industry" are bound to have a trickle-down effect, making it even harder for women lawyers to be taken seriously.

Mr Mears will have another opportunity to air his views on this issue at a Law Society and Bar Council-sponsored conference next month, at which he is a key speaker. The conference is called The Woman Lawyer: Changing the Culture, and Ms McGlynn is very interested in what he will have to say.

The second Woman Lawyer Conference is being held on Saturday 20 April. For details, phone 0171-722 9731.

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