Joanna Hardy, a leading junior barrister, recently triggered widespread debate when she took to Twitter to express her views regarding sexism at the Bar. Hardy pointed to the entrenched sexist attitudes of others in the profession, stating that women barristers at “male-heavy” hearings should not be asked to “fetch the coffee”, pour water or organise the case dinner. She recommended changes to tackle the longstanding issue. These included abolishing early court sittings, and sets of chambers to introduce maternity policies and support for mothers returning from periods of maternity leave.
Sadly, Hardy’s comments not only highlight the difficulties faced by women at the Bar, but also other women across the professional services sector. There are practical challenges imposed by certain professions that may make it difficult for women to balance their competing priorities – for example, an absence of family-friendly policies promoting flexible working arrangements; business development events being scheduled outside of normal working hours; and a lack of support when returning to work after a period of maternity leave. Some women may feel they have no option but to change, or leave, their careers after having children,. Some may feel that they may never be able to attain senior positions, without having to sacrifice their family life. Even women without children might still face inequality. It is common practice in some professions to make gender-related assumptions or habitually treat women as inferior to their male counterparts.
The gender pay gap
The recent emphasis placed on gender pay gap reporting has provoked significant discussion regarding the prevalence of gender inequality in the workplace. In 2018, KPMG published its figures, disclosing a median pay gap of 27%. Although they were not required to do so, KPMG included partner pay in their statistics – which increased the median gap from 22.1% to 27%. At the time, KPMG’s UK chair Bill Michael said: “having a diverse mix of talented people to advise our clients is fundamental to our commercial success and we’re looking at every stage of our recruitment and talent management process to help us do that.”
Disclosing the figures is only the first step in fulfilling an employer’s duties – for the reporting obligations to have any real significance, employers must take active steps to narrow any pay gap.
Unfortunately, many employers are still failing to take appropriate steps to narrow their pay gap, and indeed combat any other workplace inequality, in light of the deep-rooted views shared by many within the professional services sector. However, in the current climate, where women are being actively encouraged to speak up about workplace injustices, it is not an option for employers to turn a blind eye to sexist attitudes and practices.
Employers must acknowledge their responsibilities to re-shape organisational culture if necessary, whether by raising awareness by delivering training to staff; implementing and monitoring robust policies that promote equality and diversity, family friendly rights and dignity at work; or seeking to remove unconscious bias from recruitment and promotion procedures. It would also be worth considering whether there ought to be greater support amongst colleagues for those who have to work flexibly, even if this means having to share their workload at times.
A key area for firms to focus on when considering gender inequality in the workplace is the big drop in female representation at senior level. Firms should encourage women to put themselves forward for board-level positions and provide active support throughout this process in order to address this issue. It will be in the interests of the firm to take such measures. Diverse boards can benefit from a difference in perspective and expertise.
Clients may decide to take their work away from firms that do not appear to have a diverse mix of individuals at the highest level. Senior management, who have enhanced duties to consider their firm’s best interests, should heed their responsibility to lead from the top and ensure that women benefit from the same professional opportunities as their male colleagues.
Understandably, it can be daunting for women to speak up about sexism in the workplace, particularly at the expense of risking their livelihood. But while the primary responsibility lies with employers to implement appropriate preventative measures, it is important to vocalise any concerns as soon as they materialise, whether such concerns are raised by the victim or a bystander. Furthermore, by ignoring the underlying issues, women may also be unaware of their potential legal remedies, particularly in relation to harassment, discrimination and equal pay.