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THE LEAKY PIPELINE - Gender and Progression in the Legal Profession

In Category: The Legal Market
Published: 06/10/2015

THE LEAKY PIPELINE: Gender and Progression in the Legal Profession

By Anouska Tamony and Manisha Vegad

of Cogence Search, a Leading London Recruitment Agency


“I suspect I’d be hung, drawn and quartered if such a comment were attributed to me!”

This statement came from a very senior female partner who kindly assisted in the preparation of this article.

Issues involving gender and career progression have been commented on for decades. Within the legal profession genuine efforts aimed at addressing the issue have been made but have led largely to frustration and confusion rather than progress.

As legal recruiters we are interested in our market and in supporting both our clients and candidates in achieving their objectives. We do not encounter gender discrimination at any level of the profession and genuine curiosity led us to look into this subject in greater detail. We were specifically keen to understand why, with roughly equal male and female entry into the legal profession, the percentage of females dwindles at all levels all the way up to equity partnership – the “Leaky Pipeline”.

We conducted a detailed survey which went out to over 12,000 London lawyers. The responses provided help to explain why there are more male partners than female partners. Debunking the myths

The stereotypical belief, to the extent it exists, is that women place greater emphasis on achieving a work/life balance than men: our data shows that the actual disparity of approach is modest with only 5% of men and 3% of women feeling that work/life balance is unimportant and 68% of men and 76% of women describing financial compensation as being very or extremely important to them. The career aspirations of men and women are also very similar with 64% of male and 56% of female respondents indicating that they probably or definitely want to become a partner. Interestingly 41% of men and 51% of women describe their status and title to be very or extremely important; arguably giving the lie to the suggestion that men are more driven by ego than women.

Flexible working opportunities are often thought to be a solution which will support the progression of women in the industry, yet 80% of men and 63% of women report that their workplace does support flexible working. To the extent that this is still an issue at all it is one that the majority of people recognise to have been comprehensively addressed.

Key statistics

  •    80% of female respondents and 56% of male respondents said that there are not enough female role models in the legal profession.
  •    72% of men feel that their workplace does enough to support equality compared with 32% of women.
  •    60% of men probably, or definitely, view the profession as a meritocracy compared with only 30% of women.
  •    78% of female associates believe there are gender specific barriers to progression yet only 30% of male partners agreed this to be true.
  •    5% of men and a mere 10% of women think quotas are definitely a good way to solve the problem.


We live in a world where child care is more likely to be shared than ever before. However, biology still dictates that females give birth. On asking lawyers whether there was a correlation between parenthood and fewer promotion opportunities at their current firm, women appeared more aware of a correlation than men: 84% of women and 54% of men thought that there may be, probably, or definitely is a correlation.

This is the most startling finding in our survey. We work with many successful female partners with children, yet 84% of female lawyers still believe that becoming a mother will adversely affect their career. This is clearly an issue which needs to be addressed, either by altering policy or by altering the view of the profession.

A common problem

We discussed gender discrimination with Tamara Box of Reed Smith, who raised “Unconscious Bias” as one of the potential causes of restricted female career progression. This effect is not seen at the entry point into law, but it does seem to be real and may impact the assessment of suitability of candidates for partnership.

A study by Moss-Racusin, Corinne, et al. entitled "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students" demonstrated that professors evaluated female student applicants as less competent and less hirable than male students with identical applications. Female students were offered a starting salary of approximately $26,500 pa; male applicants were offered about $30,200 pa.

This issue is not unique to science or the legal profession: a recent FT report indicates that women account for 23.5% of the FTSE 100 board, but only 8.9% of executive positions. The Bar Council’s “Momentum Measures” report of July this year shows an almost identical trend to that of the Solicitors profession: equal numbers of male and female members are called, but at 15 or more years of call practising members are 76% male and 24% female. At Q.C. level, 85% are male. 

Behavioural issues 

Several respondents and contributors mentioned that firms tend to reward male “rain-making” behaviours yet ignore female “soft-skills” of client service and retention, staff training and support. This, it is suggested, is unjust behaviour encouraging a short-term view. It fails to reward the activities which hold a firm together and allow it to grow. No firm has yet created an agreed set of metrics fairly rewarding both types of contribution. One contributor suggested there should be a Nobel Prize for anyone who succeeds in creating such metrics.

Finding the leaks: Perception vs. Reality

The belief that a barrier exists can operate as a barrier in itself. While there are a host of initiatives aimed at supporting women in the profession, including the 30% Club; marketing and networking initiatives exclusively for women; awards dedicated to women, enhanced maternity leave packages; and firm mentoring initiatives, etc., the belief that gender operates as a barrier to progression still persists and may discourage some from seeking advancement.

Aspirational differences

Our survey results indicated that women were slightly less likely to commit to career progression. Slightly fewer women expressed the desire to be a partner than men: 56% and 64% respectively; and of the women who did not want partnership, 38% cited the hours required to be a barrier. Interestingly, 76% of women and 68% of men described work/life balance as very or extremely important. These slight differences in objectives might operate to exaggerate or contribute to the attrition rate of the ratio of female to male lawyers over time or to support an erroneous belief that partnership is less important to women and that they may be overlooked in consequence. 

Multiple causes

The perception that gender bias exists within firms, coupled with the modest differences in gender objectives; the prevalent belief that parenthood adversely affects career progression; “Unconscious Bias”; and the underlying notion that the profession is not a meritocracy (perhaps implying an “old-boys” club) creates an environment in which female progression appears to be discouraged. If unaddressed, the resultant lack of female mentors and role models will effect a Catch 22 position. Such individuals are seen as vital to help others navigate a route to success, but low numbers means less capacity to help junior female lawyers to advance their careers. 

Fixing the leaks

From our analysis of the results it is clear that there is no one cause leading to lower numbers of women at the top of the profession. Rather, the effects described above combine to make it statistically less likely that women will overcome common barriers to partnership.

No magic “plug” exists to solve the issue of the leaky pipeline in one go: a combination of unconscious bias training to limit its effect, coupled with a concerted effort to address the prevalent perception that artificial or additional barriers exist for women seeking advancement would, in our view, have the greatest positive impact. Both lawyers and law firms have a responsibility to ensure that progression is an opportunity open to both sexes with identical barriers. Partner Joanna Blackburn of Mishcon de Reya believes that partners and decision makers have a responsibility to lead initiatives that proactively encourage those with the greatest potential to put themselves forward for partnership instead of relying on those with the sharpest elbows to push their way up the ranks. 

Becoming a partner is not an automatic right for anyone – in all cases it is a business proposition.  The challenge is to ensure that the thresholds are the same for all, regardless of gender.

Written by Anouska Tamony, Manisha Vegad

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