Adani Zahirah Sembiring: “Women get in, but not up” – A closer look at the legal profession for women in the 21st century

This year’s International Women’s Day was coloured with news of Lady Rose’s judicial appointment to the Supreme Court, joining Lady Arden and their remaining 10 male colleagues. Over at the world of city law firms, there were also means to celebrate as 60% of new entrants into the profession and the majority of practicing solicitors continue to be women, as reported by The Law Society. With these statistics, it is easy to say that there has been stable progress. 

Yet, as sanguine as progress may seem especially in countering the legal community’s endless talk of its classification as a male-dominated profession, one shall be cautious not to brush aside the root and ever-present issue that women are still sorely under-represented at the highest echelons of the legal industry. In other words, firms are recruiting women in record numbers only to lose them before reaching top ranks. Additionally, there resumes stark gender pay gaps compounded if and when women do make it to the most senior positions, like that of partner. 

This significant drop-off numbers in female leaders in law is a reflection of both the cultural climate and structural model that is simply less suited for women. Culturally, a power element persists to paint a masculine role of the patriarchy. According to a survey conducted by Legal Week in late 2017, two thirds of women respondents reported experiencing harassment at work, with 51% reporting such incidents on more than one occasion. It is said that the masculinity embedded in senior positions allows inappropriate behaviour to thrive, potentially steering victims off of the path in front of them. 

As for structure, the legal industry is notorious for being lucrative but punishing with its long hours and focus on profitability. Women, who are often primary caretakers in their household frontline even as elite lawyers, are intelligibly not supported by this approach. It is one thing to claim that a woman will return equally as, if not more, ambitious for career advancements as they were before starting a family; but it is another to expect absolutely zero sacrifice in the workplace to balance home and professional life. Not to mention that the timing of embarking on a motherhood journey often aligns with when opportunities do open up for promotions to partner. Therefore, the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy arises when law firms assume that as caretakers, family life will force female lawyers into making a choice, in which there is an assumption, and thus bias, that family takes priority so as to deem women less ideal in the competitive, go-getting, ‘hours’ culture expected from senior positions.  


The Law Society’s research and roundtable discussion identified the best practice for gender equality, as well as wider efforts around diversity and inclusion. Naturally, it is highly dependent on an organization’s use of resources to dictate which stages they are in for their journey with diversity, inclusion, and gender balance. 

The following solutions are to be highlighted: 

  • Men as champions of change – Male leaders from across the sector shall continue to acknowledge the importance of their buy-in and leadership to drive initiatives for a more inclusive workplace by committing to take action, lead by example, speaking up to hold people accountable, and encouraging others to join in.
  • Value-based business and development  – Transparency of organisations in communicating statistics on retention, remuneration, targets, promotion and work-life balance creates an open dialogue that is essential to understand persistent barriers and challenge them. Consistent development opportunities, such as comprehensive training programmes in confidence or negotiation skills, prepares women to thrive in the next stages of their careers.
  • A shift in the centre of business planning  – For organisations to implement successful transformational change, diversity, inclusion, and gender balance should be a core part of business strategy, prioritised such as matters of operational risk, compliance and financial monitoring.

Having identified key barriers in addition to the persistent and growing determination to promote gender balance in the legal profession is a hopeful start to a level playing field. However, there is still a lot more that can be done, especially with the legal industry’s slow pace in progress and structural innovations in terms of senior women reaching the peak of the hierarchy. One shall never overlook the magnitude of male dominance, cultural gendered division of labour, and inflexible firm structures that capitalise on working hours, which collectively harvests an alienating environment for many women in the legal profession. 

Read more about it! 

Financial Times – Women still missing from top ranks of law firms

The Law Society Gazette – Women in Law: City Limits

The Law Society – Influencing for impact: The need for gender equality in the legal profession

Adani Zahirah Sembiring was an Assistant Manager for the Pro Bono Society’s Street Law Department and is now the society’s incoming Vice President.

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