Experienced professional women in the City are still losing out on top roles. Arpita Dutt asks “Why?”

I read an article yesterday which headlined that fewer than a fifth of Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) approved individuals are women.  Despite a 50% increase in applications for FCA-approval from 2018 onwards, the percentage of female applications only rose from 22% to 24%. Why is this so alarming? Well, these figures represent the senior leadership and key decision makers at the top of financial and insurance services institutions.  It’s the crème de la crème of the top tables in the City and fewer than 20% are women. Dire.

In my role as an employment partner at the leading City law firm BDBF, I advise clients in the financial, insurance and professional services sectors in London.  This role has afforded me the privilege of advising many senior women in the City. My role is akin to an employment law emergency service – someone to turn to when times at work have got really tough, and where there may be a ‘make or break’ employment situation.

When a senior female employee or partner seeks my advice, one of the questions I ask them is whether there is anything that could make them stay (notwithstanding how deeply they feel mistreated) and, if so, whether we can explore that option first.  This may be a counter intuitive approach for many lawyers.  Indeed, I have been a litigation partner for most of my professional life and dealing with the breakdown of working relationships has been my professional life blood.

I have been a partner in three reputed law firms in London since 2006 and I am now in my 40s. The stories told to me by my senior, professional, female clients chime with me. So, whilst I bring the breadth of my experience in employment law to bear, I also ask those difficult questions that, perhaps, only one professional woman can ask to another.

Why does it matter? The loss of a senior female employee from any sector, and particularly in the City, can leave a gap that can take an organisation 5 to 7 years to fill.  If she is an ethnic minority female, it may be 10 years. I think about the best interests of my clients in continuing to develop themselves in an organisation that they have committed to over many years, and also the interests of society in building better, more diverse and resilient organisations.

As a result of this approach, my last three senior female clients decided to stay with their employers, redefining their roles to suit their skill sets and renegotiating more favourable terms. I am pleased to report that their relationships at work have strengthened and three City institutions have retained long-serving, skilled women with deep institutional knowledge.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Where circumstances have become untenable (a favourite word for employment lawyers), or it’s just time to go and take their chances elsewhere, an exit negotiation ensues. Sometimes experienced women lose their City careers and leave a very hard to fill gap. It’s the same with annual rounds of redundancies – an issue that every organisation will need to assess as we step apprehensively out of lockdown towards the recovery.

The loss of a senior female employee from any sector, and particularly in the City, can leave a gap that can take an organisation 5 to 7 years to fill. If she is an ethnic minority female, it may be 10 years.

However, where the City financial and insurance sector loses out, other sectors may gain. A conscious decision to bow out of the City is often accompanied by a new-found confidence that there will be a board or senior position open to them elsewhere. Companies need diversity of representation and understand the strength of experience and resilience that female representation will bring.

But why is cognitive and representative diversity so important? Matthew Syed, in his book “Rebel Ideas: the power of diverse thinking”, illustrates very clearly the dangers of group think and echo chambers in decision-making by leadership teams and boards.  He also highlights the unconscious danger presented by dominance hierarchies in leadership. The examples in his book of organisational failure are stark and compelling.

Despite the wealth of leadership guidance, articles, books, diversity and inclusion and HR advice, and that almost every large City organisation has a diversity network and publishes measures in relation to their gender pay gap and recruitment strategy, the fact remains that under a fifth of FCA-approved individuals are women.  This requires a greater degree of analysis and action.

My BDBF colleague, Amanda Steadman, and I recently published a detailed paper regarding positive action, which is available on the BDBF website. In our paper, we outlined a number of recommendations aimed at accelerating the pace of change so that these headlines become a remnant of a bygone era.

In the meantime, I will do what I can to ensure that experienced women who seek to leave their City and professional careers have a chance at staying put with some good quality legal advice and support. I cannot physically offer you a cup of tea right now, but my conference line is working.

Arpita Dutt is a founding partner of Brahams Dutt Badrick French LLP, a leading employment law firm in the City of London. She specialises in complex severance negotiations for senior executives and high value/high profile whistleblowing and equality litigation. Please contact her on 0203 828 0350 for a confidential discussion.