Dear Sirs, we need to talk about women

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a magic circle law firm called Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In September this year the firm decided to bar its lawyers from starting emails and documents with “Dear Sirs”, instead introducing the more inclusive “Dear Sir or Madam”.

And Lo, all the women rose up from their traineeships and associate roles into partnerships and senior management; the gender pay gap dissolved into a mere passage of text in a history book. Women! They acknowledged women! Did you see?

What really happened was this: the words of address on Freshfields’ emails and legal documents now read “Dear Sir or Madam” instead of “Dear Sirs”. Nothing more.

Chris Pugh, a Freshfields joint managing partner said:

“It’s a relatively small change but it’s a significant point and you notice when everyone immediately accepts the change needs to happen.”

Pugh here presents this change as something that will have consequence. Something that, he earnestly reminds us, may seem little, but is indicative of a better world where women working in law will enjoy far more equitable treatment by being acknowledged as people who might receive these letters. He’s trying, you guys.

Let’s be honest, nothing will happen. Words connote meaning but the subjectivity of that meaning lies in the eye of the beholder. When that extra “or Madam” is read by someone already prejudiced against the professional capabilities of female staff, who is embedded within a workplace culture that actively oppresses them, it’s unlikely they’re going to take it as much more than lip service to political correctness.

It’s no secret that law has a problem with women. The firms know it, too — in 2014 Linklaters became the first magic circle firm to set gender diversity targets. By 2018, they aim for at least 30% of new partners to be female. Some have questioned whether this target is artificially low, noting that for the last 20 years, there has been equal amounts of men and women entering into the profession.

According to 2014 research by Chambers Student magic circle firms were found to lag behind other UK firms in gender-equal partnership figures, with an average of 18.8% of female partners between them. The same research found the London average to be 25.1%; the average across all UK firms surveyed was 24%.

According to Legal Cheek, 49% of Freshfields associates are women; at partner level, this figure slides down to 17%.

Why is this? At trainee and associate level, average figures are much more equitable, and sway in women’s favour if anything. The problem is getting promoted, which relies on decisions made by those on top. It’s those on top who set and enforce workplace culture.

Just last December junior barrister Charlotte Proudman spoke out against Alexander Carter-Silk, a senior City solicitor, for “complimenting” her LinkedIn profile picture. Carter-Silk connected with Proudman before sending the message: “Charlotte, delighted to connect. I appreciate that this is probably horrendously incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!! You definitely win the prize for best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.” Predictably, Proudman received her share of online abuse.

In 2013, top Biglaw firm Clifford Chance released a memo for its female attorneys. In Clifford Chance’s Presentation Tips for Women, female staff are reminded that “You’re a friendly professional, not a professional friend. Your friends will still like you afterwards, even if you adopt a more formal tone.” They are also offered some other handy tips, such as lowering the pitch of their voice (say, like, a man’s?), to eat something as a means of lowering nerves — “but not too much” — and to wear a suit, rather than a “party outfit”. And my personal favourite:

“No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage. Don’t dress like a mortician: if wearing a black suit, wear something bright. Don’t dress like you do every day, wear something special.”

The Lawyer reports a £24,000 difference in average salaries between men and women in 2015. In April this year, women accounted for 17 of 74 new partners at magic circle firms. The top of the apex in elite UK law firms it still, it seems, very much a man’s world.

The problem with these words Freshfield has added is that they are no lever, no pressure, and no incentive to make change. They are a fruitless, empty gesture aimed at growing public consciousness of the women’s movement to keep the firm in good stead. “We aren’t like those other law firms!” they exclaim. “Look at our address letters! Did you see?”

Celebrating this change as a baby step forward is a slap in the face to the discrimination women face when trying to build their careers. Treating this addition of a handful of letters to some pages as a reasonable antidote — even in a small measure — to the ingrained corporate culture of male-centric success is so condescending that, as noted elsewhere, it’s surprising the firm didn’t follow up with an apology. It’s a harsh, cruel reminder of how developed and blinkered the patriarchal ego is.

You can change the letters but what matters is the semantics behind them. And for that to shift, we need to attack corporate culture itself: what is considered “successful”, and how we award merit for these successes.

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.