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Women in legal business series: Part one – every day sexism, and are we our own worst enemy?

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by Anthem Consulting | 8 months ago

We have spent the last few months meeting with a number of senior women in law firms to discuss what challenges they feel that they face as women, exploring areas such as discrimination, gender pay gap, and returning to work after maternity leave. There were consistent themes across the board from small to large firms, and some really interesting insights as to how far women have come in the legal sector. We’ll be writing a series of articles exploring our findings. Part one focuses on one of the most recurring messages around sexism. Almost all women we spoke to alluded to a very subtle or “everyday” sexism that manifests itself in very small, everyday scenarios. 

Many of the women we spoke to felt that they are asked more frequently than their male peers to do administrative or “softer” tasks by male partners, such as ordering flowers or chocolates to send to a client.  There was a division as to whether this is because women as more capable, organised and efficient in getting something like this done or whether they are “gender-stereotyping” by treating women in the workplace like a PA or their “work-wife”. Playing devil’s advocate, we went on to explore whether there’s an element of women not saying no, or properly defining the boundaries of their role. There were examples of men being asked to do the same tasks and the response is “sure, I’ll organise a PA to do that” sending the message “that’s not my job, but I’ll make sure it gets done for you”. We concluded that (in general) men are better at saying no and defining what is and isn’t within their remit. 

One defining example that women picked up on in relation to gender roles in the workplace is that of who pours the tea at a meeting? This may sound trivial, but it was clear that it was important to those who raised it.  Some women sense that they are “expected” to be the ones who “play mum” in a meeting room and are often the ones left to pour the tea whereas others have never given it a second thought. There was concern that this impacted on their credibility as a senior marketer and some have learnt the hard way that in order to be taken seriously they have given clear boundaries to partners as to what their job does and doesn’t entail and that they have to “act like a man” to get ahead. One senior woman that we spoke to said she has made small changes such as not being the first to jump up and make the tea, and this has really helped to change how partners perceive her. Others thought it was simply good manners and felt that both men and women seem to be quite happy to pour the tea. 

All of these points discussed led us to thinking about whether people really do experience sexism, or do we as women take on the tasks perceived to be more female because we’ve been hardwired to do so? We felt conflicted by some of what we heard because whilst it’s clear that some women felt they are treated differently, we also wondered whether we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to gender stereotyping, by not always taking a stand against what we feel is expected when it comes to some of these tasks. Whether what people told us they experience is deliberate or subconscious is unclear, although the general feeling was that partners have come a long way in recent years in recognising that business development is much more than admin, so it’s very possible to be that they just assume that a senior business developer will simply delegate the task to a junior or a PA, whether male or female. There was a general feeling that women can sometimes be the victims of their own success because they are happy to add more and more to their workload, or don’t have the confidence to speak out.

It’s clear from our conversations that blatant sex discrimination and sexual harassment are pretty rare in law firms these days, and by and large the legal sector is a respectful environment for women to work in. However, whilst it is easy for firms to take a stance on obvious discrimination or harassment through clear policies on what is unacceptable behaviour, a lot of what was discussed is so subtle, and partly down to how the woman herself feels. This is much harder to manage, but firms should be cognizant of it. Our own personal thoughts are that women sometimes lack the confidence to say no, and are fearful for what might happen if they don’t take on everything that is asked of them. Firms could definitely help with this by involving learning and development teams to coach and mentor women in confidence and how to set and manage the boundaries of their roles.  Perhaps more women need the confidence to sit back and let someone else ‘play mum’ in the office environment. However, women’s confidence in the workplace is a whole other issue which we will be discussing in more detail in a future article.

If you are interested in joining the debate around what has been discussed in the article or would like to contribute to future articles in the series, we would be delighted to hear from you on 020 7822 4352.