6 March 2020

International Women’s Day 2020 – #EachforEqual

On Sunday 8th March we celebrate International Women’s Day, with the 2020 theme, #EachforEqual. Below we hear from some of the pivotal females and males at the firm, their experiences of gender inequality and the actions they believe we must take to raise awareness against bias and help create a truly gender equal world.

Siân Gill, Partner

In my personal experience career expectations are still very much based upon gender and this starts at a very young age. As a toddler, my son was quite bossy amongst his playmates (I have no idea where he got that from!). People declared that he would be a Managing Director when he grows up. A couple of years later and it was my daughter being the bossy toddler, but a different conclusion was drawn – she will be a teacher when she grows up. Curious that the same character traits in a toddler resulted in different expectations of their eventual careers.

Whilst attitudes towards gender equality in the workplace are without doubt changing, I feel that there are still different expectations for men and women. For example, plenty of my male colleagues work from home or come into the office a bit late or leave a bit early due to childcare responsibilities. This is increasingly the norm and it is a great thing for everyone. Nevertheless, it seems that this behaviour is often noticed more when it is seen in women. It aligns with people’s expectations. No one would suggest that a man can’t take his kids to school and then focus 100% on his job. So why is it that a woman is some kind of exception when she does just the same? Shouldn’t that be expected?

We all have expectations of and for ourselves and others. Perhaps we need to carefully consider where those expectations come from and whether that are based upon gender.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, when my daughter grows up I expect that she will be….. whatever she chooses.

James McDougall, Senior Associate

Many issues of equality revolve around maternity and childcare. When our firstborn arrived, the new laws on shared parental leave had recently been passed. We decided that I would take 4 months off to look after our daughter while my wife returned to work. My first day of solo childcare was extremely amateur and my appreciation for what my wife had been doing up until then shot up. A complete role reversal like this, even just for a few weeks, meant that we ended up much more on the same wavelength than I think we would have been. I don’t think I would have thought to ask for extended time off if the shared parent leave laws didn’t exist, simply due to the prevailing social expectations.

I so enjoyed spending time with our daughter that at the end of my leave I asked to work part-time so as to continue spending one day a week with her, something which is still quite unusual for men, but fairly common for women. I was slightly apprehensive as to how this change would be perceived by my employer, but I needn’t have worried; they were very supportive and the arrangement continues two years on. 

Based purely on my own circle of friends, it seems that many more men will take the opportunity to use extended parental leave or work part time and this can only help to erode the perceived differences between men and women as caregivers. Ultimately, we need to make it not just easier for women to return to work while raising their children, but for men to be seen as equal partners in the endeavour.

Alexandra Seymour-Pierce, Associate

With the push for equal representation at all levels in a company comes the inevitable question: ‘did they only get the job or opportunity because they’re [fill in the blank as appropriate]?’This question comes not just from people who didn’t get the job but often from those that did, whispered to themselves, their friends, their family. True equality will only come when we no longer ask ourselves this question, and companies have a vital role to play in that.

The hard part is that for us to reach true equality from our current starting point, unequal decisions may have to be made. Is it acceptable to actively favour [fill in the blank as appropriate] when hiring for entry level positions, in order to grow an equal pool of talent for promotion? Is it acceptable to promote someone less talented because they’re [fill in the blank as appropriate], so that those like them have someone to aspire to?

The answer to these questions is both yes, and no. Hiring, promotion and opportunity should always be on merit. However, companies should consider carefully how they assess merit. If we want more equal representation, particularly in IP where the recruitment pool has until now been notoriously small, we need to consider not just the hand that was played but the cards that were dealt. I’m pleased to see Venner Shipley addressing these issues — from removing unconscious bias in internal systems and processes to actively supporting external organisations such as IntoUniversity and IP Inclusive — and to know we are on our way towards true equality.

Nusrat Rahman, Associate

Growing up, I had excellent role models to look up to. Equality was something that came naturally in my family, even though it was not so prevalent in the larger society of Bangladesh. Both my parents were working; they had a perfect work-life balance and equally shared household responsibilities. They ensured that my older sisters and I got a good education so that we can excel in any career that we choose. My mum started working in the 1970s, when it was not common for women in my country to have office jobs. I have heard stories about the struggle with gender inequality that my mum regularly had to face in her workplace. I feel grateful to be working in an era and in a place where gender equality has improved significantly, and where I personally did not have to face such inequality. My career progression has been dependent on my skills, rather than my gender.

As individuals, there is still a lot we can do to create a future of gender balance. We should be aware of gender stereotypes, and avoid such stereotypes. We should also be open to mentoring younger generations to encourage them to choose any career that they are passionate about, regardless of their gender. Succeeding in STEM or IP careers requires hard work and the ability to keep learning, and is very rewarding at the same time. It is therefore important to educate students about these careers from a very young age in order to promote equality and diversity.