The mood shifts from targets to quotas

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By Katie King on

Well-meaning pronouncements on gender diversity are so 2010


Recent years have seen little progress made in the battle against gender inequality. Could it, lawyers are wondering increasingly loudly, finally be time to introduce quotas?

The debate about the representation of women in the workplace has rattled on for years, and soared up the agenda in recent months thanks in no small part to junior barrister and feminist crusader Charlotte Proudman.

And now that the spotlight is firmly shining on the issue people have begun to reflect on what actual progress has been made amid all the well-meaning pronouncements.

Five years ago, major firms did not set aspirational targets for the make-up of their partners. A 2010 article in Legal Week (£) about women in law summed up the situation, stating:

Law firms have in the main proved backwards at actively monitoring their female representation and retention, even though it is widely accepted outside the legal industry that it is difficult to improve the situation without relevant indicators to measure the success or failure of such policies.

Half a decade on and this has changed. Targets are now the norm. The likes of Ashurst, Eversheds and Pinsent Masons are pushing for 25% of their senior workforce to be women. Others, including Herbert Smith Freehills, Norton Rose Fulbright and Clifford Chance are setting their goal at 30%.

However, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Despite widespread target-setting, according to research by the The Lawyer magazine (registration required) the proportion of women at the top of the legal sector has remained static at 22% for the past five years. The research is very comprehensive, based on gender information from 16,183 full-time equivalent partners at the top 100 firms (3,539 of whom are women).

Amid a growing unease about the ineffectiveness of gender targets, the argument in favour of compulsory quotas to ensure a certain percentage of women reach partnership is gaining traction.

This is happening at various levels within the profession — most significantly at the top. This week Pinsent Masons partner David Isaac, who is chair of the firm’s diversity steering group, has come out and publicly backed quotas, stating:

Men don’t want to relinquish power and women aren’t pushing themselves forward so they’re not being considered eligible or have support to get into those positions. That’s why we need quotas.

That’s a huge step for corporate law, a traditionally highly quota-phobic branch of the legal profession. However, it remains a long way from being representative of mainstream views. Linklaters’ global head of diversity Daniel Danso sums up the prevailing City firm sentiment when he argues that women promoted into positions of power “would never know if they got the position because they were the best person for it or if it was just because they were a woman”.

Elsewhere in the profession’s upper echelons, Supreme Court justices Lord Neuberger and Lord Hodge have also signalled a thumbs down to the introduction of quotas. However, their colleague, Lady Hale, is in favour.

At the junior end of the law, there are young feminist lawyers who have no time for views of male traditionalists. Since the advent of social media, this group has built a public voice. Mansfield Chambers’ Proudman, 27, is their leader, with her Twitter feed full of comments like this:

Where #smashthepatriarchy aficionados are hoping to win favour is with the mainstream academic “thought leaders” whose papers often influence law firm diversity policy.

Among them is UCL law professor Richard Moorhead, an expert on ethics whose research also focuses on diversity and other law firm culture issues. Yesterday, in a victory for the feminists, Moorhead wrote a blog poking fun at the “familiarly depressing” sentiment expressed by Linklaters’ Danso on quotas.

Whilst research and the lived experience of most sentient human beings suggests rather firmly that [Danso’s views] must already be true of plenty over-promoted males, ” wrote Moorhead, “[I]t’s a bit worrying when a head of diversity spouts such an irony free, gendered view of the world.

Moorhead went on to confirm his pro-quota point of view, though with considerably less oomph than your typical Proudmanite:

Having sat rather uncomfortably on the fence for rather a long time, the level of analysis and understanding demonstrated by the menfolk seeking to lead on the anti-quota’s argument is driving me ever so slightly reluctantly into the arms of the Quota feministas.

Amid this back and forth a subtle shift seems to be taking place. While the under-representation of women at the top is not a new trend, it is beginning to be framed as a problem that needs solving, rather than just an uncomfortable truth.

Whether anything will have changed a further five years from now is another matter altogether.

But it will be certainly interesting to revisit the debate in 2020. If the Supreme Court judges and City law firm leaders who are set to retire in the next couple of years have been replaced by yet more men, expect the dissatisfied cries of a wilier 32 year-old Proudman to be gaining increasingly serious attention.