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Much has been said and written over the past few years as the celebration of International Women’s Day gathers momentum with the advent of the social media phenomenon, the desire for 24 hour news broadcasting and that we live now in a society where world events make it into our lives just as if they were happening locally.

Ever since WW2 when women were given an opportunity, even if not parity, to work – and to even work in male dominated roles – out of necessity as the men were fighting on the front, women have been demanding the right to be seen as equal when it comes to the workplace. The last couple of years have certainly seen a shift in the momentum to end sexism in the workplace with the high profile campaigns such as “#MeToo”, “#TimesUp” and  “#ThisGirlCan”. Notably and somewhat ironically there appears to be an increasing number of men now being more vocal in support of these campaigns – does this matter though if the message is being heard?

This year’s theme of #BetterForBalance also resonates loudly, not only with the central theme of giving women more of an opportunity but also with our need in general to look at key areas in our society and to ask if it is truly reflective of the makeup of the people.

Speaking with Joanna Worby, Managing Partner at award winning law firm Brachers, we wanted to find out more about her views on the legal profession and the struggle it faces to allow people to not only achieve a better work/life balance but also a more diverse workforce.

Daughter of a former police chief inspector and nurse, it was always likely that a profession involving people at its heart would be where Joanna made her career and her mark. But it was, you might say, a decision that was already subject to unconscious bias on the part of her mother, who made Joanna promise not to follow her father into a career in the police:

“My mum made me promise not to go into the police as she had too many sleepless nights when Dad did not return home at the end of the shift and she had no means of getting hold of him back then. The law interested me and I wanted to work with people so a career as a solicitor seemed really attractive to me.”

The topic of unconscious bias is perhaps one of the most difficult yet important issues that faces us since it truly permeates everything and it is difficult to monitor objectively. Even the term ‘unconscious bias’ is somewhat of an oxymoron – how can we be bias about something we don’t even know that we are doing, if we are doing it unconsciously! Measuring whether there is an equal number of male to female employees is simple and obvious. We now have gender pay reporting for larger firms so that hopefully the disparity in pay differential based on gender alone can be addressed; but what of ‘unconscious bias’?

On 13 February, “The Times” reported that there is currently a shortage of magistrates which is in danger of putting the justice system at risk. Not only is there a reported shortage, data published by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales shows that there is an under-representation in all areas of the judiciary and across the country when it comes to ethnicity, with only 1% increase for court judges and 2% for tribunal judges since 2014; although it should be noted that BAME representation among court judges aged 40 or over (98% of judges) is only slightly below that of the working age general population in each age band, which perhaps says more about diversity generally.

“I agree we need a more diverse judiciary. Not just more women though; it should be representative of our society, reflecting the view and values of how we live today.

“There is a lot of good work being undertaken in the sector and JUSTICE, an all-party law reform and human rights organisation, have undertaken a lot of research into how we can encourage a more diverse judiciary. They have come up with some good recommendations, for example creating more attractive inclusive career paths for those interested in a judicial career and introducing appointable pools based not just on the skills of those applying but also the needs of the Court in question (which would include issues such as diversity).

“I think it is incumbent on law firms to be aware of the unconscious bias and review where they advertise, how they measure performance and how they remunerate so that they have a balanced workforce. Many individuals with child care responsibility (of which women are the majority) leave the profession in their 30’s unable to balance their career, so it is important we support them and offer the flexibility and help they need to be able to continue.

The advent of improved technology and more of a willingness by companies to facilitate flexible or agile working has been a positive change for many; indeed companies themselves benefit from being able to retain talented staff which they have invested in – recruitment is a costly business and stopping experience and knowledge walking out the door is equally as important. Brachers, like many firms, is adopting a forward thinking approach to staff being office based in order to give greater flexibility:

“We are currently rolling out a mobility strategy to enable our employees to work more easily from anywhere. Many do work from home on an ad hoc basis or on a defined day and this will no doubt grow, as we are committed to being a flexible employer.  I think it is very likely we could have 50% of our staff working at home for part of a week on a permanent basis, but not every day; there is still a real value in being in the office to learn from your peers, to collaborate and for social contact.

Women are undoubtedly the major beneficiaries as they look to juggle caring responsibilities with working. For Joanna, a supportive husband is crucial to making it all work:

“I think any parent will say it is difficult to get this right. I work too many hours during the week but thankfully I have a very supportive husband who is great. We try and split the day between us. I do the early shift getting our son to school and my husband does the picking up. This works for us most of the time until I have a breakfast meeting, or my husband is away on business.  Holidays are our biggest challenge, but our son is thankfully sociable and sporty and so thoroughly enjoys holiday club, tennis camps etc. Weekends are sacrosanct and devoted to the family.

“I do appreciate that I am actually a role model to my colleagues and I need to try to achieve the right balance. If I do and they can emulate that then it gives permission for others to do the same which is really important. I really don’t want any of my colleagues to have any regrets or feel that they’ve missed out because the balance wasn’t right.

It is something that is often said but not easy to achieve but getting the work/life balance right will remain a struggle for many – whatever the make-up of your family, the traditional nuclear version or otherwise. It is vital that those in senior positions not only ‘talk the talk’ but ‘walk the walk’ as Joanna does when it comes to ensuring that she doesn’t miss any important events in her son’s life. That really is change in action that will lead to better balance.

Suzanna Bailes

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