On October 30th 2014, I became the first male student to attend Shearman and Sterling’s annual Women in Law conference. I don’t say this to boast; truth be told, I’d rather more men had attended – as I hope they do next year – because a lot of what was spoken about was relevant to both genders, and because sexism cannot be successfully combated without male support.
In fact, it was by sheer chance that I found out about the event. I only realised it existed when I met Katie Meer, a Shearman & Sterling graduate recruiter, at a Kaplan Law School event two weeks prior. Since I don’t attend Kaplan and was only there because a chance glance at their website told me that non-students could attend, it was essentially pure luck that led to me making an application.
Needless to say, I’m incredibly glad I made that application; the event was very interesting and insightful, especially the panel. They were a diverse group, including Lorilee Gates, Senior Legal Counsel for Viacom International Media Networks, who grew up and started her career in the US so was able to illuminate the situation for women in law in the US. Other panelists included Suzanne Szczetnikowicz, committee member and co-founder at Women in Law London (WILL), Sarah Priestley, partner at Shearman & Sterling, Michele Smith, a trainee solicitor at the firm; and Vikki Bradley, Shearman & Sterling’s graduate recruitment manager.
I was struck by how several issues discussed as ‘women’s issues’ actually affected men too – such as the very topical issue of shared parental leave, which Linklaters research thankfully reports will have a much higher take-up rate (63%) than the government’s 2-6% estimate. This took up a good proportion of the talk, and it became clear to me why the conference had opened its doors to men this year – because if men aren’t engaged in a dialogue about shared parental leave, and if men don’t acknowledge its benefits and support it, it can’t take place.
Yet some of the most interesting points of the evening had nothing to do with men or motherhood – such as the quotas system, for example. The majority of the panel spoke in favour of a quotas system, but interestingly hardly any said they’d begun with that view; rather, they’d originally opposed quotas due to concerns over meritocracy, but eventually changed their views when they saw the practical benefits quotas bring. Lorilee spoke about the US system in universities, where a quota system for women was first enforced and then removed; yet once it was removed, the behaviour was societally ingrained and the number of women has remained constant.
In fact, it reminded me of Reed Smith’s recent guarantee of two places on their vacation schemes for disabled applicants over the last two years; this resulted in a huge increase in the number of people with disabilities applying, and though the firm has now discontinued the guaranteed places, the number keeps rising. Although the context here was different, it shows that a quota system can have this effect in the UK as well as the US – and if it can work for disability, why not for gender? Although I’m someone who once deeply disliked quotas, I’m now in broadly favour – and the debate helped to convince me of their merits.
But it wasn’t just the percentage of women on boards, or the technicalities of parental leave which were discussed – the panel also spoke about more cultural examples of sexism, such as partners being mistaken for secretaries and being held back by others’ assumptions – real or perceived – that a woman ‘shouldn’t be in this job’. It was a sobering reminder that such issues still exist – and that, however high up in industry a woman is, they can still affect her. It was also a good chance to reflect on the fact that, though those particular issues don’t directly affect me, that doesn’t mean I’m powerless to help stop them – or that I should ignore them when they occur.
Many thanks to Shearman & Sterling for hosting the event – I learnt a lot and got the chance to meet a lot of great people, all committed to diversity just like me. I’ll definitely be attending the event next year – here’s hoping it’s just as successful!