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International Women’s Day 2021

The annual celebration of women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements is held on 8th March; International Women’s Day. To highlight the day, we’re talking to three inspiring women from the world of law and business; our own Vice-Chancellor and CEO Professor Andrea Nollent, Deputy Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales Lubna Shuja and Contract Lawyer Emma Niit. We discuss the positive changes they have seen for women in the workplace and the improvements they would like to see in the future.

How have you seen the role of women in the workplace change?

Professor Andrea Nollent: Over the last 30 years, I have seen an increasing number of women securing senior positions in the workplace – but not enough to reflect the proportion of women in society. There is still a long way to go – so yes, there is much to celebrate, but women still face significant hurdles to secure and retain equality of both opportunity and treatment.

Emma Niit: I’ve been part of the workforce since the mid-2000s, in two male-dominated careers: engineering and law. During that time, I’ve met some incredible women, from personal assistants to partners, many of whom are incredibly accomplished. There’s a lot of focus on women at the top, and while I think it’s important to celebrate exceptionalism, I think we also need to recognise and give more credit to the women who work in administrative and secretarial roles. In many ways, they’re the unsung heroes of the professional world. I think we're witnessing an evolution in the secretary and administrator's role, with those roles taking on increasing responsibility and importance. Presumably, this is in recognition of the skills of the people holding these roles, although, sadly, they do not always garner the respect I feel they deserve.

I’ve also seen increasing numbers of women in professional and managerial roles, although we are still a long way away from parity with our male colleagues. More and more women are being recognised on their own merits, and there’s more of the feeling that it’s obvious, even in a male-dominated profession like law, that women should hold senior roles. Ultimately it’s less of a question of whether or not women belong (because obviously we do) but how we get more seats around the table where the decisions are made.

Lubna Shuja: Many years ago, when I was deciding on a future career, women were generally not encouraged to enter certain professions because it was perceived that a woman’s primary job was to be a mother/wife. The prevailing view was, how could a woman work without neglecting her family? Women were expected to focus their efforts on their family, which inevitably made them financially dependent on men. Even if women did work, it tended to be part-time and only in certain roles which were compatible with raising children. Careers advice would often reflect these stereotypes.  

More recent research done by the Law Society in 2018 showed that economically independent women working in previously male-dominated jobs, including in law, have increased.  However, the burden of household responsibility is still seen to fall on the woman, who inevitably finds herself juggling many competing demands.  This traditional mindset is still ingrained in society and across the world.  To some extent, this has changed during the pandemic as lockdown has led to domestic duties being more likely to be shared. But it remains to be seen if this will be a long term change. 

Over the course of my career, it has been good to see the role of women in the workplace change in a positive way.  We are now seeing more and more women reaching the higher echelons of their professions and this is to be celebrated, but there is still much more that needs to be done.  Even in those areas where women are progressing, they still face gender inequality and challenges such as the gender pay gap, unconscious bias assumptions and traditional office-based expectations.


What do you hope to see improved for women in the workplace over the next decade?

Professor Andrea Nollent: Childcare is a fundamental issue for working parents and, for whatever societal reason, it falls predominantly to women to make childcare arrangements, or assume the more significant share of responsibility for childcare. Please note that this is not because men don’t wish to do this, but frequently women will be more flexible in their career aspirations. Childcare is expensive and often, it is cheaper for women to take career breaks than to pay for good quality care. Career breaks can impact promotion and progression, often impacting to the detriment of women. So I would wish to see a number of things in the next decade, including a more equal share of childcare responsibilities between parents, flexible work arrangements, improved state provision of childcare services and an appreciation of the contribution that women make to teams, productivity and decision making. 

Emma Niit: Women need to take up 50% of leadership positions in the workplace, and we need to receive equal pay to our male counterparts for the same work. These have both been recognised problems for a long time and what we’re doing isn’t really working. I feel what we ultimately need is a new way of thinking about the problem. It’s not about what women need to do to get to the top; rather, why do women need to fight to get to the top in the first place? This isn’t a problem for women to solve on our own without the help of the other half of the population. We need more than policy statements and aspirations to increase the number of women leaders. Businesses need to take active steps because business as usual isn’t enough.

More broadly, I think we need rethink responsibilities for life outside work. Important roles like caring for children and older relatives should not be automatically classified as women’s responsibilities. The assumption that women are better suited to caring duties has a significant impact on our career progression. We also need to be honest that everyone, not just carers, has responsibilities outside of the office. Helpfully, I think we’ve already seen a dramatic shift in workplace culture with Covid-19. I think there is a great opportunity here and a greater recognition that we are all unique people outside of the office and that life can be messy. This messiness creates resilience, which is an important and often overlooked characteristic of strong leaders.

Lubna Shuja: In June 2018, the Law Society and the World Bank produced their “Women, Business and the Law” report.  The findings showed that:

  • Globally, over 2.7 billion women were legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men.
  • Although almost 80% of the studied economies prohibited gender discrimination in employment, only 40% mandated equal remuneration for work of equal value.
  • 104 economies still restricted women’s employment in specific jobs such as mining or working at night.
  • 75 economies constrained women’s property rights.
  • 68 economies restricted women’s freedom of movement or activity.
  • 59 economies did not have laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • 18 economies legally allowed husbands to prevent their wives from working.

This showed that there is clearly much more that needs to be done to improve the position of women in the workplace internationally. Gender equality will be achieved when women have equal opportunities to men. The first step is to acknowledge our own conscious and unconscious bias and undertake the relevant training to eliminate it. In addition, organisations need to have an anonymous procedure to report unconscious bias to ensure that it is effectively and dealt with swiftly.

Organisations also need to have transparent and gender-neutral processes to assess staff performance. Gender equality must be driven by the leadership of the organisation and men must join the debate to ensure long term change. There must be formal reporting processes for bullying and sexual harassment without fear of reprisal, retaliation or embarrassment and stigma.

In some legal jurisdictions, flexible working is a relatively new concept, which requires a shift in the traditional office-based mindset. This practice needs to become mainstream as a flexible working culture has the potential to benefit both men and women. It leads to improved productivity, increased performance and attracts talented new employees.  It can also increase work-life balance, making staff happier who are highly committed, more motivated, and loyal to the business. This can in turn assist with staff retention and reduced recruitment costs.

We need to see more women in leadership positions as this provides female role models and access to female mentors.


Do you or the company you work for promote any initiatives to assist woman at work?

Professor Andrea Nollent: We offer flexible working patterns – with a significant proportion of colleagues working on a part-time or fractional basis. Our leave arrangements are good and I hope that we are responsive to individual circumstances. The pandemic has changed so many things and I think that women will have been impacted significantly by home working and schooling. I hope that we can retain the best elements of homeworking to enhance women’s lives and careers once the pandemic is over.

Emma Niit: Speaking for myself (as a self-employed contractor), I think it makes sense to describe my own views on best practice, or at least what I find helpful.

Women’s networks are becoming increasingly more common and they’re a very useful platform for making connections. However, what I think we really need to support our networks is buy-in from senior management. These networks are a great way to promote mentoring and reverse mentoring initiatives, to learn about sponsorship and an important place to meet some amazing women leaders. For women’s networks to succeed, senior management needs to recognise the importance of their firm’s women’s network because it provides an excellent opportunity to understand the gender issues within the organisation. Firms are generally aware that they have a problem with retaining women at the senior levels, and women’s networks are a great opportunity for senior management to learn directly why that is. In that vein, I think mentoring and reverse mentoring are very important as well – reverse mentoring can really help educate senior leaders on some of the key issues that are important to more junior employees.

Lubna Shuja: Absolutely. In 2019, the Law Society launched The Women in Law Pledge and encouraged all legal services providers, in-house teams, local law societies and legal professionals to sign up in order to show their commitment to improve gender equality and greater diversity within the profession. Tips are provided on how to achieve this, such as setting clear plans and targets on gender equality and diversity, publishing an action plan and reporting publicly on progress towards achieving goals. Also having senior leaders committing to tackle sex discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace and tackling workplace culture and bias which may lead to different outcomes. 


What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Professor Andrea Nollent: Celebrating women’s achievements and promoting positive role models is hugely important. The power of education is the key transformative factor for women in many societies - and building opportunities to facilitate access to education through improved healthcare, wellbeing and childcare is the fundamental challenge to which we should be totally committed.

Emma Niit: On International Women’s Day, I reflect on all the women who have been part of my life and career. Also on what I can do to help other women in their careers. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked with and learned from some incredible women. It’s also a good time to take stock of what’s changed in the last year and an annual reminder that empowerment of women is not about what is said but rather what is actually done. I’m encouraged to see that our workplaces are changing, but some practices just aren’t changing fast enough and it’s important that we recognise what those are if we ever hope to be able to do something about them.

Lubna Shuja: This year’s theme for International Women’s day is #ChooseToChallenge.  This is an opportunity to remind everyone, whether they are male or female, to call out gender bias, stereotypes and inequality. It is a time to celebrate women’s achievements everywhere, but it is also a reminder that there is still a long way to go to create a truly inclusive world.  


What advice can you give to women looking to progress in the workplace?

Professor Andrea Nollent: Women are great networkers but often don’t recognise their skills. Friendship circles are very important – across all genders, so I recommend supporting these and the lifelong value of loyalty, kindness and mutual help. Seek out positive role models and mentors – ask for help when you need it and feedback on everything that you do. Don’t be afraid to challenge and question when you don’t agree or understand the actions of others.

Emma Niit: My first tip is to find a mentor. It can be anyone, but I recommend someone who is in a role you might like to have and who can advise you in your career. For that reason, I really don’t think your mentor should be your boss or someone you report to. Rather it should be someone who maybe works in the same firm, but who doesn’t work for the people you work for. My mentor is a partner practicing in intellectual property law. Despite the fact he doesn’t know my practice area, he’s given me very good advice on my career, and I trust his opinion. If you don’t have a mentor, see if your firm has a mentorship programme and if it doesn’t, consider starting one.

My second tip is to amplify and promote your colleagues, especially more junior colleagues who may struggle to be heard. We all have some level of privilege relative to others and that creates in us the ability to promote someone else’s interests. While on the surface this may appear to mostly help other people, it also benefits the person doing it by fostering a culture where colleagues amplify and promote one another. We all struggle to be heard sometimes and, in many cases, the best way to be heard is for someone else to set the stage.

Lubna Shuja: Always take on new challenges whether you think you are ready or not.  It will probably frighten and excite you in equal measure, but it will also help you to grow both in experience and in confidence.


What woman has inspired you most during your career?

Professor Andrea Nollent: At the age of 26 my mother became a single parent with 3 young children, having left school at 16 with few qualifications. Somehow she managed to work her way through university on a part time basis whilst holding down 2 jobs – and kept the household going (only just sometimes!). She went on to senior positions in her profession. She was a great role model and never took herself too seriously – and she was great fun to be around.

Emma Niit: Without a doubt, Madam Justice Mary Saunders of the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. I served as her clerk more than a decade ago and I still stand in awe of her achievements and accomplishments. She was brought up in a small town in the interior of British Columbia and has close roots to the local communities there. She also rose through the ranks of private legal practice at a time when the profession was even more male dominated than it is now. She was called to the bar in 1975, appointed to the British Columbia Supreme Court in 1991 and to the Court of Appeal in 1999. She is one of the sharpest legal minds I have ever had the privilege of meeting and also one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever known. I seek to emulate her in many things I do.

Lubna Shuja: My mother.  I would not be where I am today if it was not for her support and encouragement.


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