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08 November 2018

Law firms only pay lip service to equality – a culture of presenteeism stifles progress

Dr Alexandra Budjanovcanin, Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Services Management, King's College London

A 'jackets-on-chairs' work culture is hard to reconcile with family life

Law firm
Law firm

As in other occupations, the legal sector, and particularly private practice, sees very few women reaching the upper echelons, despite more women than men choosing this career path. Many law firms are now leading the charge in creating family-friendly workplaces, with a raft of flexible and agile working policies designed to empower their employees in moulding work to their unique needs. But are those policies having the intended effect? My recent study of London-based law firms suggests not.

Collaborating with a professional network of female lawyers, Women in Law London, I surveyed over 300 London-based lawyers and found evidence of an extensive ‘implementation gap’. There was a clear disparity between the prevalence of diversity-promoting practices within organisations and the extent of law firms’ commitment to them – although they are put in place, they are not necessarily enacted with conviction.

To delve deeper into these findings I interviewed 21 female lawyers and found that a pervasive culture of presenteeism, as well as resistance and inexperience from line managers accounted for a large part of the difficulty in obtaining flexible working for these women. Firms with a ‘jackets-on-chairs’ culture continue to demand a certain amount of time in the office, providing a challenge for people with commitments outside of work. In this context, organisational practices – particularly those aimed at promoting diversity – and the way in which they are implemented, perversely play a role in obstructing women’s careers.

Two other main findings of my study provided a mixed outlook in terms of optimism about the future.

First, women can and do engage in a range of strategies to leverage the power at their disposal to gain access to promised flexible working policies. Threatening to quit is one option used. More subtle tactics include forming alliances with other women, deliberately joining key committees that shape how practices work, and gaining the ear of more influential individuals within the organisation. This is how the women I interviewed were able to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. And of course, being lawyers, this group had a certain head start, or as one woman put it ‘[line management] know that they can’t mess us around because they’ve basically taught us how to sue organisations – we are trained like lethal weapons!’

But these strategies were not cost-free. My second main finding was that women who pushed for flexible working often suffered severe career consequences. Women described being penalised by subsequently receiving less interesting work, having to deal with the frustration of line managers, and even deciding to leave their organisation rather than dealing with the untenable working environment that would ensue if they pressed for policies to be implemented to the letter.

These experiences meant even those women who felt they might be able to use their clout to access flexible working policies were reluctant to do so. One Senior Associate told me: ‘At a practical level you definitely can [utilise agile working practices] and you’d get the agreement from HR that you could do it. But at a personal and emotional level, you might find that after a while you didn’t want to work here anymore.’ Other studies have also established a well-documented ‘flexibility stigma’ whereby flexible workers are perceived as less committed and may experience slower wage progression.                          

While my study highlights that in certain situations women can find ways of accessing the flexible conditions they need to reconcile work and family life, it suggests that the potential for flexibility to contribute to truly family-friendly workplaces is a long way off. Female employees can be active in shaping their own work environment, but we need to carry on uncovering where this is being done successfully in order to arm women with the tools to progress.