As part of International Women's Day 2022, former pupils explore this year's theme - break the bias. Anna Crosby, Class of '04, shares her experience of establishing a career as a female in the legal profession.
I start this piece with a full and frank admission
I don't feel that I have ever really had to #breakthebias from a career perspective. Certainly not in terms of my entry into the legal profession or during the early part of my career.
Why did I feel like that? The answer is simple: visibility. I grew up with a working mum – another lawyer. I didn't feel like the glass ceiling was there to be broken because she, and others in her generation, had cracked it for us. As a child, I was oblivious to how hard she had had to push to make partner: the nights working after we went to bed, the sheer determination showed to simply get to the level that her hard work and skills merited (and that was seemingly handed out to her male peers). But, despite not knowing the difficulties faced by mum in achieving her goals, the message to my sister and I was clear: work and work hard – the office is a place for you as much as anyone else.
Visibility is so important and ultimately the key to breaking down barriers
Whether gender, race, class or anything else, visibility is key to breaking down the barriers. I felt secure pursuing any career I wanted because it was what I grew up with. Against my mum's advice, Law was the chosen profession. The profession has, I'm pleased to say, changed since she qualified. That is not to say that there aren't (to continue the glass ceiling analogy) still some sharp edges to smooth out. The obvious problem in our profession is not recruitment - over 60% of legal trainees are female – but retention. By contrast to the figures at trainee level, less than 30% of partners in City firms are female.
So how do we tackle that as a profession? There is not any quick fix given the path to partnership can take years but visibility is of course a part of it. I've had the good fortune to work with some exceptional female lawyers during my career; all of whom were great role models for me as a junior lawyer progressing through the ranks. Another hugely important step towards breaking the bias is the removal of unconscious bias, which, as one female partner I work with noted, "is so subtle, it's almost imperceptible". Thankfully, my firm, Fieldfisher LLP, has recognised this issue and made the removal of unconscious bias a core part of the firm's diversity and gender equality programme. Whilst only 28% of our current partnership is female, the firm has adopted the mantra of "fix the system, not the women", i.e. attention shouldn't be focussed on coaching and training talented women to fit into a biased system, but instead should be on fixing the system itself so that it works for all. There is a recognition that the playing field has not been level to date and there is a determination moving forward to eliminate instances of unconscious bias in the firm's systems and processes (including appraisal and promotion processes). If we can remove the unconscious bias, it will surely help balance the numbers in the senior echelons of our profession. From Fieldfisher's perspective, it seems to be working. In our latest promotion round, of the 12 associates promoted to senior associate, 11 were women and 60% percent of new partners promoted this year were women.
Having good processes and systems is one thing but the career path is, ultimately, a personal one. For me, building a professional support network has been hugely important. I've mentioned role models but perhaps of greater importance are professional allies and champions – businesses are, after all, built on relationships. Coupled with that, my experience is that you have to advocate for yourself; having supporters is great but nobody will champion you if you are not willing to champion yourself.
The importance of an internal network is paramount
With that in mind, the importance of an internal network is paramount. For me, that has meant actively seeking out mentors so that I have a sounding board and people to seek professional advice from. It also means expanding your network beyond the confines of your own team. As a junior lawyer, I joined work social committees to build relationships across the firm. As my career has progressed, I've moved towards taking a sector focussed approach to my work (the energy and natural resources sector in particular). By working collaboratively across teams, you can establish yourself as a "go to" person when someone needs a, in my case, banking lawyer and, equally, I know who to go to when I need specialist advice from another team. This works in everyone's interest as the ability to deliver a complete service to clients inevitably leads to more opportunities for work. Additionally, from a career progression perspective, you become a "known entity" across the firm. From a promotion perspective, it is helpful to remember that it is not just the senior members of your team who make the decision on promotions but people from across the business who decide whether they want you to be part of the partnership / board / senior management team.
The wider professional network is also important. Whilst I know there is a perception that sometimes women in business don't always support each other professionally in the way that the "boys' club" sometimes does, that hasn't necessarily been my experience. As a junior lawyer, I was taken under the wing of a number of professional contacts in the corporate finance space (including lawyers at other firms). Those relationships helped me gain huge confidence from a business development perspective and, despite moving cities, they continue to be a great source of professional support and advice. Relationship are so important to developing a career and taking the time to build them will pay dividends.
Have a good group of girlfriends in your corner
Lastly, I'm always reminded of a piece of advice my mum gave me (her again): make sure you always have a good group of girlfriends –their support is invaluable. She's right of course. Girlfriends are people to lift you up when you've had a bad day, people to troubleshoot problems with and, most importantly, people to share a glass of wine with, relax with and have a good chat. Conversations amongst friends (particularly where you work in different industries and sectors) often lead to discovering shared experiences but they also provide a different perspective or an alternative way of dealing with a problem or a situation. Friends will give you an honest answer about something but they will also be among your biggest supporters. If I've ever felt worried or hesitant about going for something, my friends will often have given me the confidence boost needed to put my best foot forward. It is an interesting thought that, as individuals, females are often more hesitant to push themselves forward than their male counterparts but, ask your friends whether they think you should apply for that new job or promotion and my experience is that there are suddenly many hands at your back giving you a shove towards that next goal. Perhaps that's "girl power" at its most powerful and, in order to #breakthebias, it is that collective support we need to fully harness.