Embracing Equity…through the retention and elevation of women leaders

international womens day
A 6 min read in recognition of International Women’s Day 2023

Retention/ Leadership Stats

The stats surrounding in/equality within the legal profession are well rehearsed and remain depressingly static. They need little introduction.

Women make up 52% of new entrants to the legal profession. Yet, even pre-pandemic, female representation figures plummeted at leadership level: women made up 30% partners in law firms; 19% equity partners; 21% Court of Appeal judges; 16% silks or King’s Counsel.

Slow Progress

Throughout the time that I have been both at the Bar and coaching female lawyers, there hasn’t been any significant or rapid improvement. The arrival of Covid-19 in 2020 only exacerbated the problem. Post-pandemic we are seeing an increasing number of lawyers of both sexes, not just women, leaving the profession, thanks in no small part to the era of The Great Resignation.

IWD23 Theme

Forgive me, then, if I don’t “embrace equity” in the way women have been encouraged to do this year to celebrate IWD23 by giving it a “huge hug”. I’m too frustrated. And I’m too cross.

Seriously. Who comes up with this guff?

Choosing to Challenge the Status Quo

Instead, I’m going to call out the fact that since the pandemic, post-covid retention rates remain poor. There’s something either unattainable or, more likely, unattractive to women about leadership positions in law: they either choose to leave or decline to throw their hats in to the ring to apply.

I’d like to think that these days it’s less about the invisible obstacle of the glass ceiling keeping women down, and more about them choosing to directly challenge the status quo and redefining success their way.

Embracing Equity: the “How to…” guide

Instead of staying home and taking selfies hugging ourselves, how about supporting a new, more revolutionary, approach?

Here are 3 practical ideas to “embrace equity” through the exposure of inequality and encouragement of women, and their male allies, to find the courage to go against the grain.

  1. As leaders, encourage accurate and transparent gender pay gap and retention statistic reporting from within your organisation to lay the facts bare. Remember when last year, IWD22 was sabotaged by an online bot laying bare true gender pay gap stats against each firm that ran a panel event?Lip service, be gone: ask the hard questions about what it will take to change those stats for the better. If the status quo revealed feels right to you, then go with it, of course. But if it doesn’t, find the courage to challenge it.For example, the traditional career progression trajectory – ascending a linear career ladder. It’s been the “done thing” for well over a Century, long before women could ever even become lawyers. Important indicators of success have previously been money, status and power, all traditionally “masculine” concepts.In more recent years, women have been encouraged to “Lean in” to this “male”, military-style hierarchy – the Sheryl Sandberg approach to success. But isn’t it time to accept that it’s the system that needs fixing as opposed to the people within it?

    How can we learn the lessons from lockdown to capitalise on all the positive shifts we’ve already witnessed? How about challenging the billable hours culture? Or embracing flexible working in a way that so many firms have done already, proving that it is here to stay.

    Culture change is a tough gig, but as the pandemic demonstrates, if the will is there, so the way will be found.

  2. As individuals, frankly assess whether culture change is achievable in the organisation within which you work.Where it has been frustratingly slow, we have seen an army of women rising to the challenge of doing things differently, their way, with a huge increase in women moving away from the billable hours mindset and working for themselves – whether as consultants (at places like Gunner Cooke and Obelisk Support) or by heading up their own firms (Jodie Hill, Thrive Law and Alice Stevenson, Stephenson Law, being ones to watch here).Whilst it might take a bucket load of self-belief, the fact that it has been done before should give so many more the confidence to ignore the doubters and take an educated leap of faith.

    I’m not saying it’s easy, but careers CAN be developed successfully in unconventional ways. The consequent benefits to law firm culture are obvious.

  3. Embrace a coaching culture. Nothing winds me up more than hearing people say that coaching helps “fix” women. As I’ve said before, it’s the system that needs fixing, not the women within it.We know from the pandemic and The Great Resignation that  followed, so many lawyers are now reviewing their long-held career goals. To have honest yet challenging coaching conversations around career progression empowers them to step into their personal and professional power, for example by applying for the promotion that hitherto felt out of reach, or making an ostensibly “scary” transition to a different role/ department/ area of law/ firm.A mantra in business that I live by is “have the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life that others expect”. It is one of the central planks of my TEDx talk (which you can watch here ) and an important part of these coaching conversations – to encourage firms, instead of feeling threatened or fearful, to embrace conversations around unconventional career progression.

    Instead of the race to the top being seen as a sprint (with an in-built bias against women with caring responsibilities), coaching can support career break returner clients approach it as a marathon: in which people get there in their own time but over a longer period. It doesn’t mean that they are, for example, any less ambitious, just that they might need to be a little more strategic in their approach, and receive the right opportunity to be so.

    So when people suggest coaching is playing into the female talent retention and career progression problem, I ask: “Who wouldn’t want to go from good to great within the workplace?” If a coach can empower anyone, whatever gender, to achieve success faster, on their own terms, defining “greatness” their way, surely it has a significant role to play?

    For more information on how I support firms around retention and empower women in law through coaching and speaking, in particular around career progression and returning from a career break, please do get in touch: nikki@nikkialdersoncoaching.com

Nikki Alderson Biography

Nikki Alderson, specialist coach, speaker and author, and former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience:

  • supports organisations, law firms and barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; and
  • empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in 3 areas:

  • Women leadership transition and change;
  • Enhanced career break returner support; and
  • Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence and wellness.

She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching, (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX) nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category and finalist in the 2020 Women in Law Awards, Legal Services Innovator of the Year and 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Category.