Written by Mahrie Webb
This International Women’s Day, Mahrie Webb, partner at law firm Simmons & Simmons discusses what balance means to her
Balance: A situation in which different elements are equal
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a time for both celebration and reflection. On 8th March, people all over the world will celebrate both the achievements of women and discuss the journey ahead, that we hope will lead to real gender balance in society as a whole. This year’s ‘Balance for Better’ theme has led me to consider what the word balance means to me. As it relates to the work environment, I believe the idea of balance is, as the definition suggests, about equality regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age or, quite frankly, any other feature or characteristic that differentiates one group of individuals from another.
As a partner at international law firm Simmons & Simmons and the firm’s gender balance partner, I am constantly looking at ways to take the idea of balancing for better beyond the simplicity of a single statement splashed around on IWD and then forgotten about. My aim is to ensure it is a concept that is embedded in the very culture and fabric of the organisation. It is through my own experiences, particularly near the start of my career that I have been driven to strive for more and to accept nothing less than equality. One of my earliest experiences of gender bias may sound familiar to a number of my female peers. It took place when a group of us (my male colleagues and I) had been asked to attend a meeting with a new client (all-male). I had barely entered the meeting room and had not had the opportunity to introduce myself when our guests started giving me their orders for teas and coffees. During the course of a very awkward meeting it became clear that our clients had assumed that I was not there as part of the legal team at all, and that somehow meant that I could be ordered to do a variety of tasks. These tasks ranged from serving drinks to sorting out the air conditioning and booking taxis. Regrettably, at no point did I or any of my colleagues feel they could correct the situation – we all just played along with it – not daring to challenge our client’s blatant stereotyping. I remember being so disappointed with myself after that meeting – for not having the courage to speak out. I remember thinking – if we just accept and play along with these sorts of situations, how can there ever be genuine, equal, opportunity?
The idea of gender balance as it relates to law and other professional services firms continues to be a tricky subject. Law firms have historically been and continue to be inherently “imbalanced”. The percentage of female partners in UK law firms continues to bump along at around 25% and proportions rapidly decrease when you examine female equity partner numbers and the numbers of female senior leaders in law firms. Throughout my career as a lawyer I have experienced numerous occasions where I have been the only woman in a pitch, on a panel, at a client event or at a meeting. These experiences have naturally affected the way I work and my aspirations, and to a certain extent my road to partnership and beyond. In recent years however, I have been encouraged by various movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, as well as the implementation of various gender balance initiatives on a local and global basis. What I think is interesting is how these movements have in fact extended beyond the topics of bullying and sexual harassment and have helped to create workplace cultures where it is safe to call out gender bias practices and behaviours.
At Simmons & Simmons, we have implemented a flexible working policy, sponsorship, mentoring, a confidante’s programme and many other initiatives to try and tackle the firm’s gender “imbalance”. As the firm’s gender balance partner, I think taking these sorts of steps go some way to show how much the firm together with the legal industry more generally wants to change. What is, however, frustrating for those of us that are really trying to drive this change is that the results (in numerical terms) are not immediately apparent. The problem is so deep-rooted we have to accept that it will take generations for the industry to see the real fruits of our efforts.
IWD encourages us to look to the future. In my mind, the future should be a balanced place, where women should never be outnumbered in the workplace or overlooked because they are working mothers for instance. We should all be offered equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, religion or sexuality. For me, balance is less about stating these things but instead, acting on them, in all areas of the working environment and society. In my role, I feel clear obligations to ensure that the career path offered to women is inclusive, flexible but more than anything, that it views women as equal to men.
To me balancing for better is all about equality and accepting nothing less – ever.