Head of funds at Mourant Ozannes in Jersey Felicia de Laat discusses the challenges of tackling ingrained gender imbalances and structural and unconscious biases
How do you think the covid-19 pandemic has or will impact gender parity in the legal profession within your jurisdiction?
It's likely to have both a negative and positive impact. On the negative side, the press has reported that more women than men have lost their jobs or suffered economic disadvantage from the impact of COVID-19 and that women have been more likely to pick up the responsibilities of home schooling during lock down. Jersey has been more fortunate than the UK as there was only one lockdown where schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic and otherwise the schools have remained open, which may have muted the effect of the pandemic on working mothers to some extent here. I do know that many working fathers have also stepped into the breach so the impact isn’t simply a gender issue.
On the positive side, COVID-19 has resulted in far greater flexibility around working practices. If we can retain that flexibility going forward, it will help to erode presenteeism and promote a greater recognition that people have families and other obligations and hopes for their life outside work. It's important that our people can bring their whole selves to work.
What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?
I have been fortunate in my journey to have had sponsors and supporters in my partner group who have opened doors for me and made sure I had opportunities. I also had good role models in my early career of successful female senior leaders. I did have struggles around maternity leave but I was able to resolve most of those with some frank discussions. My obstacles have been more about developing my own confidence in being heard (mansplaining being a common experience for most women at one point or other) and taking leadership roles. This is probably a generalisation but most men tend to launch themselves into things with an enthusiastic belief that roles and opportunities are theirs for the taking and if they lack any skills, they will pick them up along the way. Many women, in contrast, overanalyse the next steps, undervalue their skills, worry about their fit for a role and only take it if they feel they can do it. You have to work hard to overcome this because it tends to be ingrained.
From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment in which you work now compare to the one you began your career in?
There is a far greater awareness now of gender imbalances and how structural and unconscious biases may prevent women from progressing to senior roles. There is also a better awareness of the need for an active focus on the development and promotion of female talent. However, despite this, it's a slow journey and there are still too few women in senior roles in law firms. Awareness now needs to lead into practical initiatives and creative ways of tipping the gender balance in favour of equality and this is something Mourant is focussing on.
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 feel that the key leaders in this space in Jersey have not been law firms but rather accountancy firms such as PWC (Leyla Yldirim and Lisa McClure), Lisa Springate (who is a lawyer and who is the chair of the Institute of Directors as well as Head of Legal and Technical at Jersey Finance) and the Lean In Network which was launched by Pippa Davidson at the JTC Group (previously Royal Bank of Canada).They are all clearly committed to a journey of gender equality and have been pushing it forward publicly.
What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality? Does your firm have other diversity programmes?
The Jersey office of Mourant has an employee led network focussed on gender equality called the Gender Balance Network which was launched in December 2017 and extends across our firm globally. It's focussed on improving our gender balance across all roles and levels, including retaining and developing our female talent. It sits within our Inclusion strategy alongside our employee led networks for Wellbeing, LGBT & Friends and Family, Friends & Carers.
Inclusion is a key business priority for our firm and embedded in our strategy. Over the course of the last two to three years, we have run training on diversity and inclusion and on inclusive leadership, surveyed our people on a periodic basis to get their views on how we are doing on Diversity and Inclusion, upgraded our parental leave policy. Still, there is a lot more to do and we are thinking about next steps.
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?
Mourant has a flexible working policy where we aim to accommodate people's working patterns in a way that suits them, as long as we can still deliver for our clients.
Since the first lockdown, Mourant has also launched a working from home policy to ensure everyone can continue to benefit from the flexibility that was gained during that lockdown. We are also reviewing our parental leave policies to ensure we properly support employees through an important moment in their lives.
The Gender Balance Network I mentioned earlier provides a support network for employees and has also influenced the review of the parental leave policies. While this is all positive, there is certainly more that we could do in this space.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?
Women join the legal profession in roughly equal numbers to men (slightly more women than men at qualification). The real pinch point comes at the mid point in their career where they are on the verge of becoming more senior. At that point, it is key to make sure that they have both the career opportunities and retain the desire to become more senior. This is accentuated if they pause at this point to have a family and may want to work more flexibly. The legal profession needs to be an enjoyable place to work, a profession where people aspire to progress and which creates the right challenges and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender or background. At Mourant we believe that nurturing a culture of inclusivity and mutual respect is vital to empowering each individual, whatever their background or experiences, to bring their whole self to work and to feel supported to reach their full potential.
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, not yet. There are small pockets where there is greater representation of women at partner and management levels but progress needs to accelerate. This is consistent with the legal profession in the UK generally. Pretty much everyone is aware that this is an issue – now it's about practical and creative ways of making sure women get the opportunities and are developed consistently from a junior level and don't rule themselves out.
What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?
Take up opportunities to stretch yourself and spread your wings. Look for the things you most enjoy in your job and see how you can develop in those areas.
If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?
I am not sure policies are the answer. Everyone (more or less) has policies. The legal profession is also essentially self-regulating so imposing targets is also not straightforward. As well as individual champions in various organisations with a passion for this issue, client pressure is also a key lever of change. Rather than asking whether a firm has a D&I policy, clients could help move the dial by asking more searching questions when appointing firms – how many female partners or senior business leaders do you have (as a proportion of the total), please outline the details of your female talent management programme, if any, etc. Last year we published a survey that demonstrated just how important inclusion is to clients in their decision-making.