“But who drives the tractor?” – Why sexism is alive and well in professional services and how to tackle it

Jane Keir, Senior Partner at law firm Kingsley Napley, runs a stud farm. Every autumn, her all-female farming team attends a big horse sale. At the last gathering, the following conversation took place:

Male horse farmer: “You’re an all-girl team? So, the whole farm is run by girls?”
Jane’s female farming colleague: “Yes, that’s right.”
Male horse farmer (taken aback): “So, you breed all the horses?”
Jane’s female farming colleague: “Yep.”
Male horse farmer: “You feed all the horses?”
Jane’s female farming colleague: “Yes.”
Male horse farmer: “But who drives the tractor?”

“Who drives the tractor?” Think for a moment about that question. What does it say about the preconceptions of the person who asked it and the preconceptions of our wider society? The answer, of course, is the assumption that women are less able to drive tractors than men – classic sexist nonsense.

And this is why Jane shares this story, laughing as she goes. It’s absolutely ridiculous in the 21st century. Yet, this anecdote shows that sexism is still alive within some of us, hidden more than it once was perhaps, but still present, hardwired into our habits, assumptions and behaviours. And despite Jane’s meteoric rise to the top of her firm, the legal industry is no exception.

Consider the make up of most senior management teams in most industries, law included. “There are many more female than male solicitors, but very few women ever make it to senior management level,” says Jane. “We’re not making the progress that, by now, we surely should be. It’s surprising and frustrating. At our progressive partnership, Kingsley Napley, 50% of our partners are women, but the wider industry is nowhere near that figure.”

While talking to women at networking events, the elephant in the room regularly reveals itself. “I hear the same question from young female lawyers all the time,” she says. “Is it possible to become a partner if I don’t work full time? That’s what they ask. And some tell me that they know they’ll be immediately sidelined if they even mention the idea of starting a family.”

Yet, argues Jane, it’s not in any firm’s best interests to hold women back, or to send out messages that motherhood and top positions are incompatible. A business biased towards installing men at the top level leads to a draining away of talent and a board that lacks both balance and perspective. It looks bad, too.

“A growing number of clients examine the cultural and gender mix of law firms,” she says. “Some are saying: ‘If we can’t see a strong, diverse mix at the top level, then we will give our work to someone else.’” And this, suggests Jane, is a logical position to take: how can a firm that excludes talent on the basis of gender be as effective as a firm that embraces all talent? After all, at least 50% of all consumers are women.

Gender imbalance is still an issue, then, and this lack of diversity leads to a potential commercial problem – as well as a moral failing. The question now becomes: how do we address it? To answer, we need to consider why the issue still exists in 2018, and tempting as it is to blame a mysterious cabal of men in grey suits, Jane suggests the root cause is far more complex.

First, as we’ve already seen, gender assumptions remain engrained. Here are a few classics: ‘Women are great homemakers but less good at figures and management’; ‘females are more touchy-feely’; ‘they can’t operate machines as well as men’; ‘women are more emotional’; ‘men are more logical’. These generalisations are arguably less visible today than they have been in the past, but they still have power and in many families are reinforced from early childhood. Jane suggests that women often fall into line behind the stereotypes – and they are pushed unconsciously into playing roles that society finds ‘acceptable’.

“I caught myself out just the other day,” Jane says. “Something sounded wrong on my car so I phoned the mechanic and said: ‘It’s probably just me but could you please check?’ I couldn’t believe that I’d said ‘it’s probably just me’. A man would say ‘my car sounds wrong, can you check it’. Women can have a tendency to be diffident and to rely on a man to solve a problem.”

Jane believes that women need to fight against such diffidence and also push themselves more in social situations, to network and to initiate business meetings. “I often look around at breakfast meetings and business lunches and think: ‘There are very few women here – the vast majority of these meetings are men only ’. Women are not transacting, not doing the business, not making the contacts. Come on. Let’s get out there. Let’s change this. Go and make the connection. Invite someone to breakfast, meet them for a coffee – part and parcel of your profession is making new contacts and forging new relationships.”

Just as female employees need to fight against gravity, employers need to be proactive, too. Jane believes it doesn’t take much to make a huge difference. “Often, women coming up through the ranks just need to hear: ‘You can do that, you really can’. My former senior partner, Christopher Murray, started saying that to me about three years before I became Senior Partner. ‘You can do this job,’ he’d say gently. I thought: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not going to stand up and make big speeches in front of everyone at the firm.’ But eventually my thought process became: ‘If he’s saying that he believes in me, it’s silly for me to keep pushing it away.’

“It’s easy to forget how powerful it is to hear a little nugget like ‘see – that was really good’. Taking the time to say something unusual, positive, and encouraging is crucial.”

The second factor behind gender imbalance is more straightforward: firms’ failure to offer flexible working. Jane is clear that this is where she believes companies must improve. “At Kingsley Napley we have no positive discrimination, yet half the partners are women,” she says. “A big reason for this is that we make truly flexible working a reality by ensuring that we all support each other. Our people are willing to pick up the work of someone who works maybe four days a week, or who has to leave at 4pm to collect the children. This support benefits our men too when they need to look after the children or when they need to take the day off to care for a loved one. We make sure that this support is available equally right across the firm.”

Firms who do not have a culture of supporting mothers through flexible working are missing a trick, suggests Jane: “It’s good for the team; not just the mothers. You get loyalty back and it gives everyone robust confidence. We’ve proved that true teamwork like this can be effective so I find it hugely frustrating that women are not coming through at higher levels because they don’t think it’s possible, and no one has taken the time to point it out to them that it is”.

Jane Keir is a woman who has made it to the top in law thanks to her own hard work but also through the unwavering support of her progressive firm. She couldn’t have done it without them, just as Kingsley Napley could not have achieved its recent successes without Jane. In contrast, it’s incredible that many professional services firms, when building their senior teams, continue to ask the equivalent of “who’s going to drive the tractor?”. It’s high time that more firms recognised that encouraging and supporting talented women to reach the top is not only the right thing to do, it’s the best thing to do.