Over half of female lawyers have experienced or witnessed sexism at work

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By Thomas Connelly on

But 46% fail to report over fears it would negatively impact their careers, new research reveals

Over half of women in the legal profession say they or women they work with have been on the receiving end of sexist comments from male colleagues.

The survey of over 700 solicitors, barristers and other women working in the legal profession showed that while 58% had experienced or witnessed sexism first hand, almost half (46%) did not complain for fear of the impact on their careers.

The research, compiled by The First 100 Years project, a celebratory campaign to mark the year when women could first practise law, also found that 80% of female lawyers believe it will take 20 years or more to achieve equality, while 23% consider that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 100 years. Just 2% felt there was true equality in the legal profession, according to the findings.

Women respondents also expressed concerns about discrimination and the dominance of men across the upper ranks of the profession, with 52% agreeing that it is still easier for men in their organisations to achieve a promotion. Less than half of those surveyed said that women are fairly represented in the senior management of their organisation.

“Gender discrimination is rife,” one anonymous female partner told researchers. “The “boys’ network” remains in full force, excluding women from networking opportunities and bullying them so that they feel inadequate and incapable.”

“Partnership structures in law firms breed the boys’ club mentality,” another respondent added. “Earlier in my career I wanted to prove myself equal, better even, than the men. Now I look a few years ahead to partnership and realise I don’t want to be in a boys’ club even if they invite me in.”

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Commenting on the findings, Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years, said: “Many organisations in the legal world are succeeding in creating an acceptable working environment, in which discrimination and harassment are not tolerated and family friendly working patterns are at least a possibility.”

She continued:

“This is proof that it can be done, yet it is clear that 100 years after women were first permitted to practise, they are still being held back. In some cases, they are being treated unlawfully by their employers and many are leaving a profession that they feel does not work for them.”

Elsewhere in the research, over half of respondents (54%) said they receive encouragement from senior women in the workplace but that a failure of employers to accommodate the “realities of family life” continued to hold women back.

Twenty-eight percent of women surveyed claimed they have considered leaving their job due to a lack of flexible working, while 39% said their working hours were not compatible with family life. The majority of respondents (60%) believed that working part-time would impact on their career prospects.

Last year former magic circle lawyer Denis-Smith called for the introduction of quotas to help boost the number of women at the top of the profession amid growing frustration over the ineffectiveness of gender targets.

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