On International Women’s Day we speak to six women across the legal tech industry about how far the sector has come – or not come – in terms of gender diversity, what the biggest challenges are, and why diversity matters. Having their say are:
Emily Foges, Luminance
Laura Whitehead, iManage
Melody Easton, DocsCorp
Caterina Latte, Workshare
Aisha Tummon, Tessian
Ivy Wong, Lexoo
How far has the legaltech industry come in terms of improving gender diversity?
Foges: There is no doubt that we are making waves as an industry. Luminance is a case in point, with a workforce largely dominated by women, from marketing right through to our software developers in Cambridge. We are leading the charge and that makes me incredibly proud.
Tummon: I think the biggest improvement has been an awareness and acknowledgement that there is a lack of gender diversity in the legaltech space. Gender diversity is now a serious item on the agenda, which is the first step.
Whitehead: But the industry still has a long way to go to improve gender diversity. Stereotypes are still prevalent, and often with it the associated behaviours – which I have witnessed first-hand throughout my 18 years in the industry. That being said, there are companies that are focusing on changing this and working towards improving diversity.
One of the challenges we see is the ratio of male to female applicants is still heavily weighted towards men. We are currently doing everything we can to try to increase the number of female applicants, although I think the problem starts way before employment and is actually an issue of our children and the subjects they are choosing to study through school and onwards.
Easton: There have been improvements, but it’s still a long way off. Within the IT teams at law firms themselves, more and more women are being seen in the legal innovation field, than in the actual IT space. If IT and innovation become more streamlined, I believe we will see more women moving into the head of IT and innovation role.
Latte: I have worked in the legal tech space for two years now, so not a long time. However, I have worked in the IT industry all my career. I’ve always believed this industry operates as a meritocracy where employees who deliver consistent results receive favourable treatment regardless of their gender or background. Unfortunately, this is not 100 per cent true yet. Women still need to overcome many obstacles working in IT by letting their performance speak for them, more so than men do. There are definitely more women in legaltech today than in the past, but gender-based prejudice and discrimination are still a reality.
Wong: The traditional law and tech industries suffer from significant gender diversity issues, but legaltech is relatively young in comparison and we can help ensure that it matures into a diverse workplace.
What are the biggest challenges that women in the industry face?
Tummon: Coming from a legal background, after previously working as an M&A lawyer for Clifford Chance, the issues that are facing women in the legaltech industry are similar to those facing the legal sector in general, in other words a lack of gender diversity in senior positions. We need to understand what the barriers are to entry so we can course-correct.
Foges: I think that a lot of the challenges centre around self-doubt, but that stems from an industry wide perception that we need to address. The technology sector, whether legaltech or otherwise, has always been branded as a male-centric space and so, women often question whether it’s the right industry for them.
Latte: Legal tech is still a male-dominated field where women might often lack self-confidence. Most importantly, they experience gender inequality at a higher rate than in other industries.
Whitehead: I try to take the view that opportunities are there for everyone and you have to put yourself forward. You have to get in the race. Companies are more aware of the need to ensure they are not discriminating – either way – on gender, so I think its important women feel empowered and equal and do not let their own perceptions hamper the direction they wish to go in. The challenge for the industry is providing the environment that enables all sexes to flourish and I think this is as much about attitude than it is gender.
Whilst I believe things have come a long way, one episode has stuck with me from a number of years ago – not at iManage. Whilst on a conference call, and the only woman on that call, someone’s children could be heard in the background. The call nevertheless continued and on its conclusion one of the other callers said ‘Laura – you can go back to your children now.’ I replied, ‘but my children are in childcare so I’m not sure whose children you could hear.’ The call went silent. It was hard not to feel angry and insulted.
Easton: I had a recent conversation with a female head of IT who mentioned that someone said to her managing partner – ‘What! You employed a female IT Director!’ This wasn’t said in a complimentary way. It was said in a ‘have you lost your marbles’ way. It’s this stigma that women don’t do tech that’s rather disconcerting. I believe there needs to be more education around what women bring to the table in terms of business acumen and creativity, as well as tech ability.
What are the biggest obstacles that the industry faces in terms of further improvement? What more needs to be done?
Easton: Education. We need to start bringing in graduates and moving them up the ranks. Legal IT isn’t as attractive as working at Google or Facebook. But firms need to try and entice more women into the field early in their careers and perhaps the innovation team is this lure. There also seems to be a new role emerging – legal technologist. These are lawyers with an interest in technology and I believe firms need to encourage their tech savvy female lawyers to look at this role as a career progression path.
Whitehead: I agree, education from an early age is required. Stamp out behaviours that make it difficult for women to work. Create environments that allow diversity of ideas, not just gender, and this should have a knock-on effect.
Tummon: The biggest challenge is definitely “feeding the pipeline”. If we don’t have more girls and women in STEM from an early age, when it comes to hiring the next CTO, the women won’t be there to be hired. I believe it is more of a societal issue than unique to legaltech, but unconscious biases need to be addressed as soon as possible.
I am co-founder of Women Empowering Diversity in Start-ups, a network founded by women at Tessian, Panaseer and Digital Shadows, who believe that diversity and inclusion of all kinds are essential and drive happiness and success in the workplace. I believe it is very important to share our success stories, showcase diversity and encourage and empower others to do the same.
Latte: The most obvious consequence of not having gender equality is that tech solutions will be highly inclined to design unfairness. There are examples of software or AI systems not being able to recognize women’s voices, or products being designed for and tested by only men at the risk of female users. As women become bigger consumers of legaltech, the way women use technology must drive product development.
Foges: In the UK, only 17 per cent of employees in the tech sector are female. First and foremost, we need to tackle the stereotype that this is a man’s world by opening the door to women. Only then will women start to view legaltech as a viable career option. To do this, we need to start right at the very beginning, educating girls on the opportunities open to them in this space and encouraging them to select the STEM subjects that will help them break in to this industry.
Why is gender diversity important in legaltech?
Easton: Why is gender diversity important in any industry? Women should have the same rights and opportunities as men in any sector. What examples are we setting for our daughters if we say they can’t go into a certain field? The legal sector is notorious for being averse to change, but the truth is, it’s ahead of some other industries. Just look at life sciences – the first female CEO of a large pharmaceutical company was only appointed two years ago in 2017.
Whitehead: We need to encourage STEM subjects at school, for girls as well as boys, to ensure that we empower girls to enter a male dominated industry. The balance of having both men and women provides for a great working environment, different ideas and skillsets. We should encourage and harness that.
Wong: Gender diversity is important for legaltech because it opens up this fast-growing industry to different ideas and perspectives, which help to spark innovation, and a much wider talent pool, which helps to deliver that innovation. As we are quickly building new approaches to legal services delivery, from training expert systems to developing the NewLaw model, it is crucial that women are involved in its development and rollout, so that the end product truly represents the common goal.
Latte: Gender diversity is fundamental in all industries. But the ultimate mission of the legal practice is to establish and promote the common good and the advancement of society. Technology, on the other hand, is set to transform society by improving access to justice and client care. Because women are disproportionately affected by access to justice and workplace issues, they are also exceptionally inclined to solve them. Women and men can nowadays come together to make a real difference and impact the world with their work.
Foges: A recent study by The Law Society found that as of 2017, women represent the majority of practising solicitors. With more women than ever going into the profession, the more we can mirror our customers, the better. The benefits of boardroom diversity in terms of bottom-line impact have been proven time and time again, and the legaltech industry is no different.
Tummon: I think if we are still asking that question, we have a lot of work to do!
By Amy Carroll