It's fair to say that as a lawyer, I probably live and work in a bubble surrounded by likeminded people. I know I'm lucky and that my environment is not typical. On Wednesday I was speaking to a 17 year-old called Sarah, who is the daughter of a good friend and I was sharing my enthusiasm for the upcoming Women of the World (WOW) Conference in London and how important this is to us all.
My conversation with her was depressing. I had always thought that sex discrimination and in particular, subconscious bias, was a generational issue and that our focus needed to be directed towards older people who had been raised in more traditional relationships. In other words, younger people are better educated about equality issues. I'm always being told that Millennials and Generation Z are more progressive on these issues.
Sarah, who is in a mixed sixth-form, told me of a recent meeting held at her school when a group of 12 pupils were working together on a project and one of the boys suggested that she take the minutes. To be clear, this was not just a casual suggestion, it was clear from the circumstances that as a boy, he felt qualified to delegate this task to her and that she was the obvious choice to take the minutes. It seems subconscious bias is alive and well at the tender age of 17.
I then went to the WOW Conference, learned that this behaviour is by no means exceptional and that young people are still largely conforming to stereotypical behaviours. How do we stop another generation adopting these habits? The media has a lot of responsibility here, but surely this type of education needs to start early. Really early. Even at 17 it seems it's too late. This kind of education needs to take place at an early age in schools (and by lively debate at home). The Government has recently announced a change to the school curriculum that will introduce sex and relationship education, but no specific training has been formulated for teachers and when will they find the time anyway?
What is odd is that when it comes to the workplace we are seeing an increasing trend towards diversity, with more men willing to be the home keeper, to work part-time in order to share childcare and take advantage of shared parental leave. This is good news. Diversity is good for business and the figures prove it.
At my law firm, Sackers, where exceptionally 50% of the partners are female, we have embraced flexible working for all solicitors and have enhanced shared parental pay. We are not perfect, we are still learning, but it's clear the culture of the firm benefits hugely from a balanced environment with men and women bringing together different skills. I don't think it's any coincidence that this combination has resulted in Sackers being one of the most profitable firms in the Top 100 and it's a popular destination for the many lawyers leaving magic circle firms.
These are encouraging signs, but perhaps the exception rather than the rule. We are all guilty of subconscious bias, whether male or female, and no matter what our age. When we see this happen in our everyday lives, just like Sarah, we need to recognise it and give ourselves and others a sense check; in the nicest possible way (in fact Sarah stuck a pencil in his leg, but let's ignore that bit!). I just hope that the recent changes to schools' curriculum might be a first step towards ensuring that women are not the obvious choice to either take the minutes or pour the tea.
Katherine Dandy is a partner at Sackers and a founding member of the Women's Equality Party.