Female legal leaders: progress, celebration and an uncomfortable truth
More than a century after women first practised law in England and Wales, the legal industry continues its journey toward greater inclusivity and equality. A landmark development is the recent appointment of Dame Sue Carr as the first female Lady Chief Justice of England and Wales in its 755-year history. At the same time, Lubna Shuja has broken through multiple barriers as the first Asian, first Muslim, and seventh female president of the Law Society of England and Wales. This is noteworthy given she is the 178th person to attain this role.
Yet many barriers remain for women in the law. How can we continue to dismantle them? Our Obelisk Support Women Who Will network of female leaders in law, held in partnership with the Next 100 Years project, recently came together to answer this crucial question. While we all felt energised by these most recent ‘firsts’ and the progress we’re making in our own organisations, many obstacles persist.
During this session, we confronted an uncomfortable truth: women in leadership positions do not always support other women as fully as they could. It was disheartening to hear a few women recount how they had succeeded despite barriers put up by other women in leadership roles.
We reflected on the root causes of this issue and what can collectively be done to support, encourage and hold each other to account as leaders.
What’s causing this lack of support for female leaders?
The data is clear that previous generations of female leaders had to navigate a significantly more male-dominated legal profession than today’s generation. And this could still have a lasting impact.
Female leaders may have had to adopt more competitive behaviours and attitudes to climb the ranks in a more male dominated profession, and their experiences could shape their approach to mentorship.
For example, it could lead to a mindset that suggests women today must struggle in the same way their predecessors did: “I had it hard, so why should anyone else have it easier?”
There is also sometimes the barrier of a scarcity mindset to address where, because of a perception that there are fewer overall opportunities for women – or people of colour or people from a different socio- economic class or background – those in positions of leadership sometimes feel that they have had to fight for those positions, and thus view other women, for example, as threats rather than allies.
5 ways to support, encourage and hold female leaders accountable
#1 There’s no such thing as ‘too many’ successful women
Leadership coaching can play a key role in reshaping outdated attitudes, helping women in senior positions recognise their potential as a positive force for change. A woman who has overcome challenges on her journey to the top can use that experience to make the path smoother for those who follow, rather than seeing her past struggles as a reason to perpetuate the hardships she encountered.
This involves shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset, where success isn’t seen as a zero-sum game, but as something that can be shared and increased for all. Every woman who achieves success can open a door for others – there’s no limit to how many can follow her through.
#2 Resilience can coexist with empathy
When times are tough, people are looking for leaders to show their strength, resilience and firm decision making. In this environment, it can be challenging to bring ‘softer’ skills into the balance.
However, this doesn’t mean that bold leaders can’t also show their care and concern by supporting, nurturing and coaching the talent coming through the pipeline. This doesn’t undermine their authority or resilience; rather, it humanises them, builds trust, and plants the seeds for future growth.
#3 Open dialogue drives progress
Sometimes, leaders are unaware of their unapproachability and remain oblivious to the intimidating shadow they are casting. Communicating this to them requires courage but often, drawing their attention to this issue is enough to stimulate a change in their behaviour.
We also need to help our younger team members stand up and speak up when they encounter obstacles. Lawyers just starting their careers might not always feel confident or capable enough to advocate for themselves.
#4 Organisations must hold themselves accountable
Organisations need to be vigilant, ready to identify and address any behaviour that undermines building inclusive and diverse environments.
Too often, individuals leave organisations due to unfair treatment, while the perpetrator continues to thrive. To shift this, a brave organisation might say: “You’re not a leader unless you’re an inclusive leader. You won’t be given a platform as a role model if you aren’t willing to uplift others.”
A competitive environment can often pit leaders against each other. Breaking this mould involves promoting what good leadership looks like and incentivising positive behaviour. Leaders need to be encouraged to not just manage upwards, but outwards and downwards too.
#5 Value the team, not just their output
Leadership, at its core, is about more than just extracting results. It’s about asking: “How can we support and develop people rather than just squeeze the most out of them?” The true mark of a successful leader lies not just in their ability to meet targets, but also in their commitment to nurturing and developing the potential of each member in their team.
During team meetings, it’s important to take a few minutes to check in on everyone’s well-being and ensure they feel supported. This helps to create an open, welcoming culture where everyone feels valued and comfortable to ask questions and grow.
“A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for recognising the potential in people and ideas and has the courage to develop that potential.”
We must take great care not to undermine the strides made to date in the legal profession. Lawyers rising through the ranks often look to leaders to help them navigate their career path. If these individuals are not modelling supportive behaviour, we run the risk of perpetuating a cycle that fails to foster an inclusive, supportive environment for everyone.
Those of us who are committed to mentoring and sponsoring the next generation of diverse talent have the privileged opportunity to set positive examples. We need to keep showing what good leadership looks like to create a positive ripple effect across our profession.
“As we build on a century of progress and look to the Next 100 Years, women need to join forces and support one another in the legal profession. It’s not about being a star or a diva, but rather about joining the rock band. Let’s make great music together.”