Women and the Glass Ceiling – the debate continues

19th November,2010. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great privilege of attending a lunch at UCL which was hosted by Margaret Mountford. The lunch was attended by a number of women in leadership positions and yet sadly the
subject of debate was women and the glass ceiling and the attrition of women at a certain level in industry, the law and the judiciary.  The previous day, the Evening Standard had published an article on Margaret Mountford and her former firm, Herbert Smith, in which it stated that the firm had fallen to the bottom of the City’s equality league table and that only one in 10 of the highest-earning “equity” partners is female at Herbert Smith. That placed it last out of the 10 biggest City practices.
Interestingly law firms are trying to encourage flexible working and women to stay in their positions, however attrition of female lawyers at a certain age is incredibly high and unfortunately it is often difficult to return to the profession after taking a break for period of time.
Outside the legal profession, Lord Davies, who is the former chairman of Standard Chartered PLC and a former Government minister, has been asked to build on the work carried out by Professor Laura Tyson in her 2003 report by:
• identifying the obstacles to women becoming directors of listed company boards; and
• making proposals on what action Government and business should take to improve the position;
The government is now staging a last minute push to get women from across the country to take part in its inquiry dedicated to boosting the number of women in Britain’s boardrooms. The Department of Business Innovation and Skills is urging women from across Britain, whatever their job, to fill in its short online survey as part of the public consultation into the issue to assist Lord Davies in his  recommendations by the end of the year.
Whilst it is encouraging that our government recognises that there is a problem in many public companies and it is attempting to address it, are we asking for diversity merely for diversity’s sake? Whilst many women would acknowledge that there is a dearth of women in higher positions, many would also agree that they would want to attain positions upon merit and not solely because of positive discrimination.
Having worked in the city for many years,  I can only hope that Lord Davies does clearly identify the obstacles that are preventing women from reaching the higher echelons of powers and not base this solely upon women choosing to have a family. I hope that he can see beyond this, given that this is generally the main reason which is often cited by men and women alike for women not having greater positions in power.  Another obstacle which may arise is changing the mentality of the city and law firms where many senior positions are filled by men. Only time can tell.
Certainly the women with whom I attended the UCL lunch were incredible role models and examples of women who had reached senior positions on their own merit but it is sad, that still in 2010, this is an issue that is still being debated and requires government intervention.  Women in Law seeks to help women and law firms understand the need for balance in careers and life and encourage law firms to recognise the value of women and all levels and to assist them in retaining them now, and in the future.