The Prevalence of Sexism In Law
Sun, April 18, 2021

The Prevalence of Sexism In Law

Dr. Ivy Williams joined the Inner Temple as a law student almost a century ago, according to Zoë Apostolides of British newspaper The Guardian. Three years after the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, Dr. Williams became the first woman to be called to the bar in the UK in 1922. She taught law for 25 years and offered free legal advice to those who cannot afford to go to law school even if Dr. Williams never entered private practice. Since then, the legal field has adapted quickly unlike STEM-focused industries like medicine and engineering.

In a survey done by The Law Society, a professional association and representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, 68.8% (12,970) out of 18,850 UK students that were accepted onto courses were female, while 31.2% (5,880) of those who were accepted were male. 5,719 new traineeships were registered with the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) in the year ending July 21, 2017. Of those, 3,638 or 62.3% were female and 2,081 (37.7%) were male. While the aforementioned statistics are commendable, sexism is still prevalent in the legal field.

Sexual Misconduct In Law

The SRA released statistics on sexual harassment in England’s legal field last month, which have increased over the last five years and have reached a record high, stated Alexandra Topping of The Guardian. Reports of sexual misconduct to the SRA have doubled from 25 in 2014 to 2015 to 63 in 2018 to 2019, with the number of reports in the past year increasing by 16%, per the response to a Freedom of Information request.

Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ|Littler, which requested the figures from the SRA, noted that the employees in the profession were becoming more assertive. She explained, “The increases coincide with the growth of the #MeToo movement, and likely reflect broader cultural changes arising from that.” There has been progress among law firms in the UK such as restriction on alcohol intake at work events, but the above-mentioned statistics showed that progress still needs to be made.

Last May, a global survey conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA), an international organization of legal practitioners, bar associations, and law societies, revealed that bullying and sexual harassment were common in the legal field, according to Owen Bowcott of The Guardian. The IBA surveyed almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries and it showed that the UK’s levels of bullying were above the international average.

According to the report, 62% of female respondents and 41% of male respondents said they “had been bullied in connection with their employment” while international averages were 55% and 30% respectively. In the UK, the frequency of sexual harassment is closer to the global average with 38% of females and 6% of male respondents said they had been affected.  By comparison, 37% of females and 7% of males reported they had experienced sexual harassment during their career.

Over 700 British lawyers participated in the survey. The IBA report stated 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases globally are not reported for various reasons, including the victims’ fear of repercussions in their career in law, clearly reflecting “chronic underreporting” of incidents.

Outside the UK, higher levels of sexual harassment and bullying were documented in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Younger legal professionals are disproportionately affected by bullying and sexual harassment.

IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto argued that the report is the first global proof that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal field. He asserted, “Following the global #MeToo movement, the legal profession has regularly been called upon to advise other sectors on these issues.” He emphasized that practitioners must be of good character if they want the law to remain in proper standing with the global community. Addressing bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession is key in maintaining the long-term vitality of the said occupation.

Much Has to be Done to Achieve Gender Parity

President of the supreme court Lady Hale predicted that gender parity in the judiciary can be achieved by 2033. More work needs to be done if the legal field wants Lady Hale’s prediction to come true. Of course, real parity means equal opportunity to guarantee that top-level positions are occupied by people from different backgrounds and demographics. General counsel for a large corporation and a member of Women, Influence and Power in Law UK (WIPL) Barbara Levi said “only a few” women make it to the top even though “a very high number of women” reach middle management within organizations.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years project, explained, “The industrial levels of inflexibility present in many firms to the progression of women are part of the answer.” Levi, who is also a mother of four, pointed out the “additional layer of complexity” inherent to “continuously re-balancing priorities.”

In 2015, shared parental leave entered into force, however, nearly a quarter of men (22%) said they would not take it due to financial pressures (44%), a sense of duty to be the main breadwinner (34%), and a fear of being stuck at home with an infant (25%), according to a survey by Quality Solicitors, a grouping of law firms in the UK. The law isn’t even statutory.  

Helen Lamprell, general counsel and director of external affairs at Vodafone UK, narrated, “When I started, women had only just been allowed to wear trousers to work.” She has had positive experiences with support from men and women, including negative ones. “Casual sexism is still far too prevalent,” she said.

Varied Experiences of Women In Law

However, women’s experiences within the profession vary. For instance, Denis-Smith mentioned that while there have been 490 female QCs in the last century, only five have been BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women.

Associate solicitor at Moore Blatch LLP Amandeep Khasriya said, “As an Asian woman in the UK today, diversity and equality have always been important influencers – and challenges – in my life.” Men have a 73.5% likelihood of becoming partner, but this falls to 13% if the individual is a BAME woman, Khasriya, who is also the founder of the Women Back to Law community, added.

Denis-Smith said self-regulation is clearly not working considering that not all firms will implement such measures. In fact, she suggested seeing quotas for women partners. Other solutions include increased flexibility for women in leadership roles, as well as to diversify workforces in legal firms to accurately reflect the communities they serve.

The legal sector is still rife with bullying and sexual harassment. Law is a legal profession but the sector needs to address such issues to ensure that women can get into top positions and foster diversity.