BonelliErede banking and finance partner Catia Tomasetti discusses challenges for women in the legal community and outside it in Italy
How do you think the covid-19 pandemic has or will impact gender parity in the legal profession within your jurisdiction?
It is without doubt that the lives of many women professionals were strongly affected by the pandemic, as they found themselves at home having to deal both with their job and their families. For a lawyer-mother, house-keeping help is crucial to make things work and to have a balance, being unable to have this kind of help due to the pandemic was certainly penalizing.
What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?
Things have changed since I started this profession in the ‘90s. The number of problems with clients are fewer, if not completely null. Clients look at the result and don't look at gender. The only problem I had with a client in my career was when I got pregnant and he revoked all my mandates, he said he feared I would focus less on my job as a mother, but he returned after little time.
The story was different within law firms and in some it is still hard to accept female leadership. In BonelliErede, I must say, we are a virtuous example – many of our focus teams are in fact headed by women.
From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment in which you work now compare to the one you began your career in?
It has changed a lot. Consider that in 1995 in Italy there were no female partners at all. In 1999, in the law firm that at the time was considered to be number 1 in Italy, a woman was the only new partner to be rejected amongst those who had been candidated to join the partnership.
As for my own personal experience, I was the first female banking partner in Italy (2000).
Even amongst leadership roles, women worked in specific sectors such as family law, or labor law. Banking was considered a “man’s world”.
Furthermore, there was no consideration for those who remained pregnant, it was frowned upon at the time, while today - especially in big law firms - young mothers are assisted accordingly.
Do you feel the legal profession within the jurisdiction where you are based treats women and men equally? If there are inconsistencies where are these most noticeable?
From a recognition of competence perspective, I think we have reached a good point in terms of equality. The greatest inequality remains in revenues. The gender pay gap in Italy – not only in the legal sector but in all sectors– is very large. In Italy the gap is about 30% between men and women, in law firms I believe it is less but it still exists.
Who do you consider have been the leading figures in your jurisdiction’s legal profession in improving or challenging gender equality in the last decade and why?
I believe Claudia Parzani, currently in Linklaters, did a great job in the sensibilization process in the legal sector on these topics.
Concerning law firms, I am convinced BonelliErede does a great job and continues growing from this point of view.
Are there any initiatives within the legal profession in your jurisdiction to promote gender equality?
Not that I am aware of. There are many at a business/corporate/leadership level and I am convinced that participating in them is very important, just as networking is: sharing experiences between generations is crucial to face this problem.
What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality? Does your firm have other diversity programmes?
In BonelliErede we have harmonized the policies relating to maternity leave in the various countries in which we operate: the consideration will be equal to 100% of the salary for five months, integrating the provisions of local social security regulations, with retroactive effect from 2018. Naturally, we also thought of all the fathers who will be guaranteed five working days of paid leave when their child is born.
Does the legal profession within your jurisdiction or your firm have any initiatives to support working mothers? If they are, do you think they are sufficient?
In Italy, there is no national maternity support for lawyers. The national forensic fund gives a mother on leave 80% of the amount declared by the lawyer in the previous year for 6 months, with a 3000-euro cap per month. This is discriminatory with respect to those who own a law firm, for example, who gain much more than 3000 euro a month, but cannot access it and therefore tend not to go on maternity leave and run back to work a few days after delivering.
For a woman, it is really hard to be a successful lawyer and find a good work life balance.
How does your firm compare to others in your market when considering gender equality?
I think BonelliErede has good gender policies, I don’t know exactly what other law firms do. What I know for sure is that only law firms in Italy can makes a difference, as the national support is still very bad.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?
The hardest thing - the greatest obstacle - is having a good work-life balance: in order to stay at a high level in the profession often women still have to make choices, hard choices.
It is also important to have a supportive husband/life partner due to strong social pressures from the society in which we live.
In this sense, it is also very important to choose a law firm in which diversity issues are addressed at multiple levels.
Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within the jurisdiction where you are based? If not, what do you think can be done to ensure women are well represented in these positions?
No, I don't think so. Pink quota regulations are very important - I believe all law firms should have them. Also, diversity and inclusion committees are very helpful to promote a more inclusive environment.
What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?
I am often asked this question. What I always answer is to follow their passion and love your work and never make fallback choices in the name of the family or in the name of what society might say. Also, my advice is to never be afraid to ask for support when in need: may that be to collegues, bosses, clients and above all partners/husbands/wifes.
Women often set themselves limits because it is what we were grown up to think, because we feel the cultural social pressure that is still especially strong in some areas of our country.
There are no mountains that are too difficult to climb and often it is easier to climb them with the help of those who have already reached the top and are willing to lend a hand. My advice is to network on this. Even if there still are not enough, there are a number of women who play leading roles in the Italian legal landscape and I always suggest young lawyers to look up to these people and ask for advice.
If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?
I believe the problems for maternity leave for lawyers are three:
I think that the policy I would introduce would be to reform the national maternity support law currently in place for lawyers. I would take out the 3000 euro cap, and turn the money at least into 100% of the average of the three previous years, or consider the previous year, if it is not too different from the average of the 3 previous years. This would help women have children without being afraid to damage their law firms. Also this would help women to not being afraid to own law firms.