Alison Newton: Equality fails when females are made to suffer for a ‘career break’

Women outnumber men in the legal profession and have done so for the last four years in Scotland, but to assume this means equality is naïve to say the least.
Alison Newton is a Partner at Addleshaw GoddardAlison Newton is a Partner at Addleshaw Goddard
Alison Newton is a Partner at Addleshaw Goddard

Research shows the gender pay gap begins to emerge after just five years in practice, with men much quicker to progress, and securing higher paid roles. Women just can’t seem to catch up, and I think we all know why.

Although not exclusively, women are more likely to take time away from the office to raise children or care for others. This subsequent gap in recent experience often counts against the individual, regardless of their quality or seniority.

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Last week’s Women in Law summit, celebrating 100 years of women in law, acknowledged this, introducing new targets to encourage gender balance in the profession, from recruitment through to retention and progression.

This will require a significant shift in workplace culture towards more inclusive working practices, which can be both complex and time consuming to implement, but the benefits of opening the profession to a wider talent pool is difficult to ignore.

The unconscious bias begins with the recruitment process. It has been subject to bias scrutiny for many years, and while firms are taking steps to address this, removing name, age and gender in applications, there is still one element of the process that unfairly penalises women – the requirement to account for a career time line.

However, in my personal experience, I haven’t seen one CV in the last ten years which involves an extended career break. Having to explain time away from the office in an application immediately signals a lack of confidence in women, disregarding skills and previous employment.

This is worrying, as it is clear women are choosing not to return to the profession at all. Consciously or unconsciously, Scotland’s firms are deterring women from returning to law, negatively impacting individuals as well as the profession.

Key decision makers in the legal sector have a responsibility to ensure the best talent is retained. According to the Law Society of Scotland, however, there are still large differences in perception based on gender. Interestingly motherhood, for example, was considered as being a barrier to partnership by 52.4 per cent of women, but only 10.8 per cent of men.

Unless we start supporting women in the profession to achieve partnership and other leadership positions, it is likely these perceptions will continue to be self-fulfilling, continuing the cycle of unconscious bias.

One way to attract women back into work is the ‘returnship’ – work experience placements specifically tailored to refresh the skills of those returning to practice after a break. Law firm life can be fast-paced and often very pressured, which can cause individuals to lose confidence in their abilities and feel disconnected from professional networks.

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At Addleshaw Goddard, we run the Returner Programme each year, which aims to bridge gaps in experience, refresh personal networks and restore confidence through practical work placements. It can seem like a leap into the unknown returning to work after an extended break and this is why it is important to show returners how best to highlight experience regardless of gaps in experience, to help them pursue their career aspirations.

This year marks 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, paving the way for women to practise law. Fast-forward to 2019 and there’s still a long way to go to achieve true equality, and ‘returnships’ are just the start. A desire for fairness and justness is at the heart of what we do as lawyers, and we should strive for this in our workplaces, too.

Alison Newton is a Partner at 
Addleshaw Goddard