14/03/2017 08:02 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Gender Discrimination In UK Legal Sector: A Thing Of The Past?

The success of the modern law firm lies in its ability to adapt and meet the needs of its workforce. Law firms need to remain flexible to meet these challenges and recognise the skills and talents of their female lawyers. Historically, female lawyers have not been given the same career opportunities as their male counterparts and have been overlooked for partnership. I would hope that in the coming years such gender bias will be a thing of the past, and clearly things have already started to change. For example at my current practice Stowe Family Law LLP, the majority of solicitors are female (9 out of 14 partners and 29 of 42 solicitors).

It goes without saying that women working in the legal profession no longer face the same obstacles they encountered twenty years ago. In fact recent statistics show that there has been some significant progress for women. Interestingly more women than men are joining the profession and make up 48 per cent of solicitors. However despite the steady increase in the number of female entrants to the profession over the past twenty years, only 28 per cent of partners are women. Why is this? In part this may be down to the difficulties faced by women by virtue of their gender and career choices. It is more common for women than men to have to make difficult choices between family life and the demands of a career - or to have to sacrifice one for the advancement of the other. The challenge for women lies in being able to achieve a balance between meeting the demands of a young family and achieving their career goals. Fortunately women have been helped in part by the introduction of paternal leave and flexible working patterns which have made it possible for men to share the responsibility of child care.

Twenty years ago when I started out as a trainee solicitor, the partners in each firm were mostly men and from the 'old school' who did not recognise the demands placed on women, both in the workplace and at home. Their own wives tended to stay at home. Opportunities for men to share the responsibility were simply not available to male colleagues. There was also an inference that by working part time female lawyers were not providing the same level of commitment as those working full time.

Thankfully, although such blatant gender discrimination is a thing of the past, and despite firms like Stowe having a largely feminine workforce, women are still subject to a degree of discrimination but in a more subtle form. We are more likely to be judged by our appearance and behaviour than men. Women who have a reputation for being aggressive run the risk of being labelled as harsh or unpleasant and those who are less assertive than men are perceived as weaker and not having the same self-confidence.

Kate Rayner is the Managing Partner at Stowe Family Law, based in the firm's office in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. She joined the firm in 2010 and was formally the Managing Partner of the firm's Hale office. Kate specialises in all family law matters, including high net worth divorce cases and matters involving children.