On 1 February this year I had the privilege of being appointed joint managing partner at Russell-Cooke with my friend and colleague James Carroll. James is gay and I am a woman and one of our first thoughts was to celebrate our appointment externally from a diversity point of view. Ultimately we did not because we considered that our gender and sexual orientation were irrelevant to the role. On reflection I think that our diversity is to be celebrated.
In the run-up to International Women’s Day I have reflected on this. Russell-Cooke’s own Women’s Networking Group (WNG) is planning events and encouraging colleagues to reflect and to support the 2021 IWD theme of “Choose to Challenge”.
I will be honest that I have long thought that the WNG had seen its time. There was a time when networking (specifically) probably was (unconsciously) segregated into male and female friendly events (the inevitable rugby match versus chocolate tasting) but while networking events specifically appear to have moved on, that does not mean that there is no need for a Women’s Group.
The Law Society assesses that around 69% of UK students accepted on to law courses are women, and that 52% of solicitors on the roll are women. So where do they all go by the time partnership rolls around? At Russell-Cooke our partnership is 39% female and half the current board is female, but this is a work in progress and there is still work to be done.
This is not the forum for a detailed analysis of why promotion and seniority isn’t balanced across the genders but my view is that it comes down to confidence, social and cultural expectations and the fact that on the whole the world is pretty much male centric. (If you don’t believe that is the case then read Caroline Criado-Perez’s excellent book Invisible Women which explains how pretty much everything from town planning, to the position of seat belts and (topically) the manufacturing of PPE, is all designed from a male perspective). It is that much harder for women to receive the same level of recognition as their male peers when the male perspective is considered to be the “norm” and when assumptions are still made about how women should behave or perform.
That is not to say that men don’t realise there is an issue. The Law Society report of June 2019 “Advocating for Change” carried out research which revealed that 74% of men thought there had been progress in gender equality. However, only 48% of women thought the same. The blocks include likely unconscious bias and frankly the failure of men to have been in the shoes of women and to have had the experiences of women (understandably).
And that is what I think the Choose to Challenge theme of 2021 is all about. It is of course about the big issues, but for many of us it is realistically going to be about the small issues. It will be standing up to the British Gas man who literally just said to my husband while I was writing this: “I explained this to your wife but I appreciate it was a lot for her to take in”. It is taking the conscious step not to start your letters with the default (!) “Dear Sirs”. Dear Sir or Madam is just as effective. It is pushing back on slightly patronising tones in addition to overt bias and prejudice. It is being careful about your language (there is a difference between being described as bossy and being described as confident). For firms, acknowledging the strides of shared parental leave and the shifting attitudes towards fatherhood, it is taking account of the fact that the majority of caring and childcare responsibilities still falls onto women and trying to accommodate that as best they can (particularly post pandemic when attitudes will have shifted).
Only in the past week was it announced that the Marriage Act 1949 is to be amended to permit mothers of the bride and groom to have their names recorded on the official register of marriages. In the grand scheme of things this may not be the most pressing issue, but it is frankly astonishing that is taken until 2021 for it to change and one wonders why it didn’t happen earlier. It may be that people just didn’t choose to challenge.
So I will choose to challenge and push back on the myriad of tiny issues that all build up to perpetuate the male experience as “normal”. I do think representation matters and that it is important that people with different experiences like James and I (both incidentally also first in our families to attend university) are seen in leadership roles.
So James I think our different experiences are relevant to our new roles and we should celebrate that.
Read Joint Managing Partner James Carroll's blog for LGBT History Month here