Sarah Chilton and Pooja Dasgupta 25 Feb 2019 05:01pm

Sexism in professional services

What the issues are, what can be done and how management can lead from the front

Caption: Ensuring zero tolerance towards sexist behavior is essential in changing outdated attitudes

The recent comments made by Joanna Hardy, a leading junior barrister, regarding the continuing prevalence of sexism in the legal profession have triggered widespread debate across the professional services sector. In a series of tweets, Hardy set out her list of recommendations, including urging men not to “behave like [they’re] on a stag do”, encouraging women to support their fellow female colleagues and recommending that sets of chambers consider their policies for supporting female members. Essentially, highlighting that it is in fact a shared responsibility to tackle workplace inequality and there is still plenty to be done to meet this end. Hardy’s views were prompted by a similar plea by the head of the Criminal Bar Association, Chris Henley QC, who said that there was not enough action to ensure that there was “zero tolerance for sexist and bullying behaviour” within the profession.

While Hardy’s musings primarily relate to the challenges faced by women at the Bar, sadly, the same can be said for numerous other professions. Although we currently live in a climate where women are being actively encouraged to speak up about workplace injustices, in some, perhaps more traditional, professions, there remains a deep-rooted culture of inequality and women may be understandably reluctant to challenge such entrenched attitudes, at the expense of jeopardising their career prospects. Even in circumstances where women feel able to raise their concerns, ultimately it is almost impossible to re-shape workplace culture without proactive steps being taken by employers, and indeed their senior management leading from the top, to achieve this goal. For example, employers who refuse to adopt family-friendly policies may prevent women from being able to balance successfully their professional and personal lives, potentially resulting in them having to abandon their careers, or switch to an alternative career.

Whilst gender pay gap reporting was introduced with the key purpose of tackling inequality by promoting transparency regarding pay, recent statistics have shown that the gender pay gap is in fact worsening in nearly half of all companies, with four in ten private companies that have published their latest gender pay figures having reported wider gaps than last year, according to the BBC. These statistics should serve as a reminder to employers that it is not enough to undertake an audit and report their figures; for the process to have any lasting benefit, employers must also actively take steps to narrow any pay gap. However, there are often a number of underlying, systemic issues preventing this from happening – for example, clients displaying subconscious bias by appointing male advisers, over their female counterparts; men continuing to dominate board-level roles (and being the decision-maker when professional advisers are appointed); business development opportunities occurring outside of working hours (hence to the disadvantage of employees with care-giving responsibilities); and women returning to work after periods of maternity leave to find their practice has all but vanished or they have suffered some other disadvantage as a result of their leave.

It is not only the responsibility of those suffering the disadvantage, but also anyone who witnesses such behaviour, to raise the concerns. As Hardy vocalised, it is important for women, and indeed men, to support other women to speak up about these issues, otherwise sexist behaviour will continue to be accepted as “the norm”, thereby hindering the long-term progression of women within professional services. There may also be circumstances where women have legal remedies available to them, such as related to harassment, discrimination or equal pay.

It is employers who arguably face the biggest challenge, as it is ultimately their responsibility to forge a culture where men and women are treated equally and enjoy equality of opportunities in the workplace. Professional services firms should have, or consider implementing, relevant policies promoting equality and diversity, family-friendly rights (with a particular emphasis on supporting women returning from career breaks and maternity leave) and dignity at work. Steps can also be taken to ensure that subconscious bias is eliminated from recruitment and promotion decisions, and work allocation decisions, this may involve training and implementing procedures around “blind decision-making” were decisions are made on objective measurable criteria.

Ensuring zero tolerance towards sexist behaviour, examples of which were reported by Joanna Hardy, and which behaviour will likely amount to harassment and be unlawful, is a critical step to stamping out out-dated attitudes and behaviours. Furthermore, the policies in place should be monitored regularly in respect of their effectiveness in promoting gender equality and eradicating harassment. It would be advisable for firms to implement staff training to raise awareness of the existence, and the need to eliminate, all forms of discrimination in the workplace. This might include separate bystander training for sexual harassment, together with a targeted message to senior management to highlight and reinforce their responsibility to “lead from the front”.

Sarah Chilton, partner, and Pooja Dasgupta, associate, at CM Murray