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‘Invisible Women’: lessons to be learnt for the legal industry

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez is a scathing expose explaining the ‘gender data gap’ existing across all sectors of society. The ‘gender data gap’ is the limited or lack of available information relating to the experiences of women, i.e. women are not involved in the collecting of data, which results in poor decisions taken. In her preface, Perez explains that this ‘data gap’ is unlikely to be ‘malicious, or even deliberate’ but is a result of an ingrained psyche that the accepted norm is male and to take into account women is abnormal and inconvenient.

Part Two of the book is titled ‘The Workplace’ and details the ‘gender data gaps’ existing within the workplace environment. Perez effortlessly explains the effect of women doing ‘75% of global unpaid work’ to the struggle facing female academics to the negative effect of the standard office temperature which is ‘on average five degrees too cold for women’.

There are three significant points which Perez makes within Part Two which should be assessed in relation to the legal industry where ‘women make up 49% of lawyers’ according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The legal industry is changing, law firms are becoming more attuned to the importance of female representation at all levels. Many firms which King’s Women in Law has worked with have introduced Committees at management level to discuss gender diversity and implement strategic decisions. However, this is not enough. Law firms need to ensure there is adequate maternity leave pay and time, representation of women at senior positions and consider solutions for women to manage the heavy burden of unpaid work within the home.

Maternity leave

In ‘Invisible Women’, Perez clearly explains that a major hindrance to female participation in the workforce is due to inadequate maternity pay and a limited period of time for which women can take off. Maternity leave positively impacts retention of women working in paid labour as well as the number of hours worked by women and the income earned. In the book, Perez explains the results of Google increasing their maternity leave from three months at partial pay to five months at full pay. The results of this case study were overwhelming positive as the attrition rate (staff turnover) fell by 50%.

Perez explains that according to an Australian study, the optimum length of paid maternity leave for women in paid labour was from seven months to a year. Taking a look at City law firms, Freshfields appears to be taking the lead in giving all staff employed for at least 18 months, 26 weeks (six and a half months) of full pay followed by six weeks (one and a half months) at 50%. DLA Piper offers 22 weeks (5 months) at full pay for pregnant mothers. However, not all firms are consistently adhering to longer time periods for paid leave, some firms are only offering 18 weeks of paid leave, well below the EU average of 22 weeks. Consequently, it is clear that law firms need to be consistent across the industry in offering adequate paid leave and also allowing women a phased return to work. Unfortunately, as Perez explains, Brexit may have a negative impact on maternity pay regulation as the government and the business lobby ‘campaigned strenuously against the EU’s extension of maternity leave to 22 weeks on full pay’ showing that this political group may negatively impact future regulation.

Representation of women at senior positions

In Chapter Five, Perez narrates an interesting story about the experiences of Sheryl Sandberg, current COO of Facebook and former Head of Online Sales at Google. This story particularly stuck with me and was repeated throughout the book as an example of the struggle which working women face for their voice to be heard and ‘data gaps’ to be filled. When Sandberg was pregnant, she struggled to walk from her car parking space to the office and thus asked founder, Sergey Brin, to make pregnant parking at the front of the building. This was an issue that the primarily male leadership at Google failed to think about due to their lack of experience in dealing with the issue, i.e. being pregnant, and not asking women whether change was necessary for issues such as car parking. Nevertheless, it was important and the beneficial change for future generations of Google female employees is likely to be massive - in terms of health (physical and mental) and time saved which can be used in more productive means. Perez gets to the root of the problem by stating that it ‘usually...takes a senior woman for problems like this to be fixed’.

Despite many law firms creating Women Committees and groups focussed on supporting women in their journey within the law, the numbers present a negative picture. In 2019, 34% of partners in law firms in England and Wales were female. This has only increased by 3% since 2014. This makes us question whether the continued minority of women in leadership positions affects the quality of decisions made and whether the experiences of all women are taken into consideration.

Many of our members at King’s Women in Law are interested in a career at large international law firms. Unfortunately, the state of female partners in these sectors are even worse. 29% of partners in firms with greater than 50 partners are female and there has been no change since 2017. When 59% of solicitors across all law firms are female, this makes us question whether firms are truly supporting women and allowing equal opportunity for women to enter senior positions. In order to solve this issue, a study in 2019 found that successful strategies include having a ‘board-level representative where a significant part of their role is focused on diversity’ and to ‘blind or semi-blind CVs to disguise gender’.

Unpaid work within the home

In Chapter Three, Perez states that globally 75% of unpaid work is done by women who spend between three and six hours per day, compared to men who spend an average of thirty minutes to two hours. In the UK, a recent study by the Resolution Foundation found that women have reduced their unpaid hours by about three hours, from the mid-1970s, to 29 hours a week - around 4 hours per day. In the same study, it was found that men have increased their unpaid hours by about six hours to 16 hours a week. Nevertheless, a clear imbalance is still there. The burden upon women of doing the cooking, cleaning and taking care of children is significant and takes away from the ability to do more productive career oriented work which will help them achieve more highly in their career later on.

For women in the law, combined with maintaining a rigorous practice with high expectations from clients and management, women have to ensure a smooth running of the household. At King’s Women in Law events, I have spoken to women who still have to drive their children to school, do housework late at night and take time off work to tend their families, therefore it is clear that this is a problem in the legal industry too. Nevertheless, it appears that some firms are now beginning to introduce flexible working by enabling job sharing and technological solutions for remote working, in order to more productively balance home and work life. Simmons & Simmons appears to be a trailblazer in this area since it was one of the first major firms to introduce flexible hiring and working, with solutions including part-time, job sharing, slightly adjusted hours and ‘informal’ home working.

In conclusion, ‘Invisible Women’ is not ‘another book about women and feminism’. Quite the opposite. Perez’ detailed analysis of the issues facing women globally and the lack of information regarding their experiences feeding into poor decisions taken, should be read by all, men and women. On a deeper level, law firms and those interested in a career in the law should analyse Part Two in detail to understand the issues plaguing women in the workplace and how these may translate to the legal industry. With regards to maternity leave and senior positions, policy decisions need to be taken at management levels at firms upon speaking to women and consulting data, to see what solutions are available and ways to implement solutions effectively. With regards to reducing women’s unpaid work, this will take time to resolve as it is predominantly a cultural and societal issue. Nevertheless, the move towards working from home following the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt propel further discussions in flexible working and managing working time to fit in women’s ongoing commitments in the home.

Shruthi Madhusudan

2nd Year, Law (LLB)


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