Are improvements being made with gender diversity?

Women have been underrepresented and underpaid in the legal profession for some time, but this pattern could be in the process of being redressed.

Research from The Washington University in St Louis has found that female lawyers make up 33 per cent of the workforce in the US and earn only 87 per cent of male lawyers' salaries. This underlines the historic imbalance with regards to women, but, there are signs of improvements.

Earlier this year, Linklaters became the first magic circle firm to adopt gender diversity targets - it hopes to have 30 per cent female membership on its executive committee and international board by 2018. This would represent a significant development, as representation is only currently 15 per cent.

Speaking about the target, Linklaters' chairman and senior partner Robert Elliott said: "It re-affirms Linklaters' commitment to female progression, setting a visible and aspirational goal for greater female representation on the firm's main executive body, its principal governance body and the partnership at large."

Other firms are thought to be considering similar moves, while analysis by the Law Gazette has shown that of the last 80 partner promotions in the five leading law firms, 24 went to females. This points to the fact that progress is being made in this area.

Law firms and gender diversity

Analysis carried out by Law Careers shows that only two firms saw female partnership get over the 50 per cent mark in 2013 - Fisher Meredith and Weightmans. However, when the data is expanded to include all lawyers, 27 of the 39 law firms actually have more female than male employees.

This demonstrates how there are a lot of females coming through the ranks at law firms, but will they make it all the way to the top?

Alison Unsted, senior manager of diversity and wellbeing at Hogan Lovells, told the publication that a network established for women has been very successful. It sees females offered the chance to take part in a mentoring programme, client events and a guest speaker series.

"The speakers offer insight into their personal and career journeys, views on gender equality and so on. And it really shows that these aren't super women - they're just normal humans, like the rest of us," she stated.

Diversity challenges

One way of ensuring women make it to the top is to nurture and retain talent. Lisa Mayhew, a partner at the international law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, thinks encouraging females to consider their career progression from an early stage is vital, alongside the need for a top-down approach to support.

"Gender diversity needs to be vocally supported by senior management to help break down any perception of a male-dominated group culture which female employees may find off-putting," she wrote in the Guardian.

As it will remain a long-term business priority, Ms Mayhew believes that with the right level of support from both government and industry, significant progress can made around the issue in both the short and long term.

Empty promises and platitudes cannot be accepted, however, as law firms need to turn away from the status quo and embrace creating the situations needed to allow gender equality to become the norm.