Case study: Linda Lee
President of the Law Society, only the third female to have this role.
When you were starting out in your career, did you envisage any particular problems or challenges because of your gender?
I expected there to be problems. I was a working mother in the early 1990s and I accepted employers' rights to be concerned about my situation and I just had to work around that. The environment was different then and I did accept that men were seen as a better 'investment' in that they weren't going to take career breaks. But when I look back over some of the questions I was asked during interviews they would be considered inconceivable now - well it would be considered inconceivable they would be asked openly, even if they are thought.
At the time there was also a tendency to channel women lawyers into matrimonial or childcare issues, which was not the direction I wanted to go.
How has the reality panned out in comparison?
Yes, it has been a struggle and it's been difficult. I've had to balance my commitments to my family and home life and to my job. The prejudices towards working women are real, and by that I mean not only among employers but among other women who question your commitment to being a mother if you work.
Did you/do you have a mentor or role model? Is this important?
I did have role models - but they were all men because there were no female role models around. I wish there had been because I do think it's important.
Has your family situation had an impact on your career?
My career has had an impact on my family situation. But I have always been very realistic in my approach and never taken on an obligation that I couldn't fulfil to either my employer or my family. In a way that has been limiting but it has meant that I have never let my family or my employers down.
What are the benefits that women can bring to the senior ranks of an organisation?
A different perspective and a different life experience, but that's not just about being female but about diversity its widest possible sense. A range of experiences and backgrounds in senior employees benefits any organisation. The legal profession has improved a great deal since I joined but there are still pockets that are dominated by white Oxbridge educated males and I have experienced that 'old boys network' for myself.
In your experience, why don't more women make it to the top?
A combination of many things but primarily a lack of confidence or belief in their own abilities as well as external support from employers. It's extremely short-sighted of employers not to offer support to women throughout their career because they can be missing out on exceptional employees. Women are very conscious about giving a commitment and then delivering on it - because they know they will be judged harshly if they don't.
What do you think can be done about this?
I think that role models are key to ensuring that more women make it to the top of organisations to encourage and inspire other women. Women who have done it also need to take responsibility for encouraging young women and girls at a very early age. Outside of my professional career I have spent time in schools speaking to young women and encouraging them to have ambition for their futures. Of course you have to be realistic about what you can achieve but I fear that girls self-select too soon.
What advice would you give to a woman trying to reach a position of power in the UK?
My advice would be to be realistic in your assessment of your own abilities but go for it! If you experience obstacles or setbacks find another route. It's not always easy but persistence is key.
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Last Updated: 28 Apr 2014