International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women – while also marking a call to action for accelerating gender equality.

Marked annually on 8 March, IWD is one of the most important days of the year to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity and fundraise for female-focused charities. The 2021 theme for International Women’s Day is  #ChooseToChallenge.

Below, hear from three women of the Venner Shipley team on their own experiences of gender inequality throughout their careers and how they see the movement of #ChooseToChallenge.

Katherine Dainty, Senior Associate

Starting my job at Venner Shipley nine years ago, I was one of two women in a 20+ strong electronics department. Coming from a physics background, I was used to being outnumbered by men. A few years in and considering future career progression prospects, I felt struck by the lack of gender diversity. I found the lack of female role models in my department, particularly in more senior roles, to be daunting. It made me question whether there were some barriers to progression that I was not yet aware of. Speaking to men about it, many just had not noticed, and were not too concerned. It was easily explained away with the default reason that there were not many women entering the profession from engineering and electronics backgrounds. Other reasons were again related to family, such as those women choosing to have a family deciding to move in house because of more “family friendly” policies, such as better maternity leave pay. As these reasons did not appear to apply equally to men becoming fathers, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of men in senior positions of private practice compared with women.

A historic lack of paternity support and stereotypical gender roles meant men were not expected or encouraged to take time out on becoming fathers. As men were not taking much time out, paternity policy would not be a factor influencing men’s career options and men’s careers might continue substantially as before becoming a parent. In contrast for women, career progression was naturally affected by their employer’s maternity policy and by typically taking more time out compared to fathers. When I chose to become a mother myself, it was difficult to accept that taking time out to have a baby might mean I would get left behind, compared to if I had chosen not to have a baby.

Over time, society is beginning to challenge these inequalities and gender stereotypes in parenting and work. Policies such as shared parental leave mean that men can now choose to share the childcare burden of a new baby. This challenges the gender stereotypes of fathers remaining at work to provide for the family, while the mother stays home to care for the baby. As more fathers choose to take shared parental leave, this helps to level the playing field somewhat for parents. Mothers sharing parental leave with their child’s father means they can be supported in going back to work sooner. In addition, it normalises people taking time out from work to care for a new baby. This is further bolstered by men who go part time once they have a family, which historically might be something only women would do.

Venner Shipley has some fantastic male role models who have taken shared parental leave and gone part time. This makes my personal choice to have had a child and taken time off for maternity leave feel more normal. My personal feeling is that the more that men are supported in becoming fathers on an equal footing to mothers – and the more fathers choose to take those opportunities such as shared parental leave, or working part time – the more equal mothers will be able to feel at work.

Improved maternity support in private practice is still a work in progress throughout the profession, and I am grateful to have benefitted from a supportive policy at Venner Shipley. I feel passionate about visibility of women in senior roles, and if women are provided with adequate maternity support, then maternity policy and having a family doesn’t have to be a factor for private practice losing good women. The more that women make it to senior roles, the more likely they will be able to influence policy to further improve equality, retaining good women and instilling confidence in more junior women considering their options for career and family.

Sian Gill, Partner

When I joined Venner Shipley as a fresh-faced part-qualified patent attorney over two decades ago, I was the third female fee earner at the firm. The other two women left not long after, leaving me as the only female attorney for a brief period. It was not something I was concerned about. Venner Shipley was a very welcoming environment and I was not treated differently to my male colleagues.  Things were always going to change. And change they did.

The firm rapidly grew, as did the number of female attorneys. When I was invited to join the partnership, it felt like a big step towards bringing greater gender balance and equality to the firm.  It was not just me who was excited. I remember my female trainees being thrilled too!

My first Partners’ meeting was an awkward afternoon. Maternity provisions for the new partnership agreement were the major topic for discussion. The existing partnership agreement had none – it was not written with female partners in mind! Like all other changes the firm has seen over the years, this was seen as an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.

Looking at Venner Shipley today, it is wonderful to see how many talented, experienced and respected female attorneys we have. And the future looks bright with ambitious and confident women inspiring the next generation of female attorneys at Venner Shipley.

Ilka Clune, Marketing & Business Development Director

Early on in my career I remember thinking that I won’t get far with my perceived ‘female’ leadership style. The eye opener came when I realised/was taught that there isn’t a female soft and caring and a male loud and bossy leadership style but in fact there are six different ones: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching. Ever since, I have been challenging myself, my team and everyone around me to drop stereotypes but look more broadly for answers. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg: ‘In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.’