Alexandra Seehaus (Visiting Fellow, CERIC) reviews Oliver Nachtwey’s book, currently only available in German.

Alex Seehaus

Alex Seehaus, Visiting Fellow, CERIC

Oliver Nachtwey’s “The descent society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age”

Running up a downwards escalator

The election results to the German Parliament on Sunday 24th made a far right nationalist party (Alternative für Deutschland “Alternative for Germany” ) the third biggest party in the Lower House of Parliament. While among the electorate there are nationalist, racists, and neo-nazis, a huge number of people declared they voted for them out of protest against the existing government. Many of those engaging in a protest vote were members of the middle classes with middle incomes, who are afraid to lose their status and class position, due to the increase of migrants and refugees and an increased insecurity. To place this in context and understand some of this background to this turn of events, it is worthwhile to read Oliver Nachtwey’s book which explores changed mobility patterns in German society.

Oliver Nachtwey has offered a staggering account of this phenomenon in Germany, which has made it into the top selling lists of the online bookshop Amazon Germany and was recently awarded with the Hans-Matthöfer-prize for heterodox economic and sociological writing.

Nachtwey sees the social promise that has kept the German society together over the last seventy years as lost. There is no longer an ‘ascent society’ in Germany, but it has instead been replaced by one of descent. The divide between rich and poor has increased and the dynamics of social mobility have changed, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Instead of climbing up the ladder to the top, people are now making a constant effort in order not to descend, simply to hold their position. Given the fact that a majority of the public still seems persuaded by the idea of meritocracy and the belief in collective upward mobility, such developments contradict common expectations. As hard work and ongoing growth were supposed to guarantee constant status improvement, it’s mere absence causes disappointment for employees and is perceived as social descent.
Descent is a problem for society as a whole. It affects not only those whose situation is getting worse, but also causes stagnation and widespread fear. According to Nachtwey such situation is characterised by polarisation and precarity, resulting in an erosion of social integration. What he sees arising in its place is a new social question about the emergence of ‘working poor’ and unequal distribution of wealth and chances for social mobility, which threatens democracy and provokes protest.

The book not only offers a precise analysis of social inequality and struggles within democratic capitalism. Its intellectual strength lies in the way in which aspects – which often remain separate – are brought together. This includes observations on post-democracy, findings on underclasses and precarious working conditions, pressure on middle classes, as well as thesis on stagnating capitalism and low growth expectations.
Nachtwey’s analysis builds on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who depicts the upward mobility in the prospering welfare state of post-war Germany as collective elevator effect. According to Nachtwey, this metaphor has become obsolete, as people no longer move up together. The ‘steady ascent’ has ended with the deterioration of standard employment, flexibilisation, and the dismantling of social security, which went hand-in-hand with former life structures, careers and vocational paths. Instead, the collective and individual dimensions of ascent and descent have come apart. In Nachtwey’s metaphor everyone stands by oneself on the escalator stairs. Those on the top are still moving up, but for a big number of people in the middle and the bottom the direction has changed. They instead attempt to run up a descending escalator. While such an image might be considered somewhat bold, since empirical data shows that individual descent has not become a mass phenomenon and ascent is still possible, it captures the increasing distance between top and bottom as well as the important trend of precarisation collectively faced by a growing number of employees in Germany.

According to Nachtwey, people in Germany have lost trust in the notion of stability. Despite the fact that lower classes, those with less education, older as well as young people, and those with migrant status, struggle in the current labour market situation, middle class people also feel threatened by the potential and actual loss of jobs and social status. The erosion of social integration is therefore not only caused by actual descent, but also collective fear of it, which impedes solidarity. Whether concerning the conflict between employees and unemployed, permanent and temporary staff; residents and migrants; or discrimination between age groups, society has become polarised. And unfortunately this is what we see coming true with the recent elections.

Nachtwey is aware of the potential resentments and reactionary tendencies within the politics and movements addressing the deteriorating situation of the working population, such as those supporting the far right out of ‘protest’. While he points out the dangers of right wing populism, he also has some hope. In identifying the current tendencies as a tension between capitalism and democracy, there is potential for this not only to fuel regressive forms of critique and protest, but also to offer potential to progress towards a more solidaric modern age. It will, however, require progressive forces to engage energetically in efforts to turn the hostile public and political atmosphere around and to channel such tendencies away from right wing populism and towards a more distributory, fair and equitable political landscape.

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Building a Better Case for Women on Boards (by Cheryl Hurst, Postgraduate Researcher)

Over the last decade the concern for the underrepresentation of women in corporate boardrooms has steadily increased. The low number of women at the top of organisations has pushed the agenda for determining the circumstances and factors that both promote and impede women’s access to these top levels. In an effort to advocate for increasing the numbers of women on boards, research has tended to focus on the benefits women will bring to the company.

Often referred to as ‘The Business Case’, research in this area focuses on the importance of hiring from the complete talent pool; on the relationship between women and firm value; as well on the unique experiences and talents women characteristically can bring to organisational settings. Yet this ostensibly pragmatic emphasis, on connecting equality with the achievement of value related to organisational goals, is not as straightforward as researchers and policy makers make it seem.

Below, the challenges and concerns for the business case are addressed in the hopes of shifting dialogue to focus on the ideas of justice and fairness.

Changing Traditional Views of ‘Strengths and Experiences’

One of the main arguments delivered to companies is that by expanding their recruitment to include more women (and other minorities), organisations will benefit from the use of the untapped talent pool, bringing in different strengths and experiences (Seierstad, 2016). By pushing this argument it cannot be forgotten that women’s attributes may not fit within traditional ideas of what makes a successful board member.

This gives organisations the ability to argue against hiring from underrepresented groups, making the claim that they do not fit the requirements of the positions that need to be filled. Organisations have yet to widely adopt a view of ‘strengths and experiences’ that does not stem from the traditional model that values traits typically associated with men. This means that even as women accumulate varied experiences they may still not be viewed as appropriately qualified for the upper echelons of corporate leadership.

Previous and Existing Barriers

The focus on recruiting women solely as part of an effort to bring in new talent also ignores previous and existing barriers, including the discriminating tendencies of employers that women have faced throughout their academic and organisational careers.

Barriers may have resulted in women taking different avenues and approaches to the accumulation of ‘experiences.’  These different avenues, once again, do not reflect traditional perceptions of appropriate qualifications.  Without the qualifications traditionally thought of as necessary, there is a decreased chance of women being recruited, even if they have other relevant qualifications.

Those in top positions (predominantly men) who are responsible for a substantial amount of organisational rewards are still not offering equal promotions, pay rises, training, and networking opportunities to women as they are to men, again shaping the ‘strengths and experiences’ women are likely to have.

Performance Rationales

The focus on firm value has gone further, leading to performance related economic rationales for increasing women on boards. Since the early 2000’s research on board diversity and firm value has increased, showing positive relationships between the number of women and minorities on boards and an organisation’s value (Carter, Simkins, and Simpson, 2003).

The performance argument has been increasingly picked up in the media. In January of this year, the New York Times published an article asking: A Trillion-Dollar Question: Why Don’t More Women Run Mutual Funds? Again, the article conveys to readers that a mixed-gender team produces better returns. Similar articles have been published in The Guardian and Forbes, all using the ‘Business Case.’

Empirically, the argument that women increase performance is highly contested. Boards with higher numbers of women are shown to have been better performing boards overall, prior to and after hiring a more diverse range of members. This stresses the possible bias that better performing boards are able to focus more generally on diversity improvement from the start (Seierstad, 2016). While links have been found between increasing women on boards and company performance, the causality is disputed. This in itself demonstrates a need to move towards more concrete justice arguments.

Critics of the business case for increasing women on boards have also demonstrated that diversity management as a whole can actually be financially detrimental to organisations. There is a high cost to ‘diversity management’ techniques that are implemented unsuccessfully or without proper consideration (Noon, 2007). These costs are often related to high-turnover and absenteeism among women who do not feel welcome within the organisation or where proposed options for flexible working hours are not properly executed.

The business case also ignores how organisations benefit from the discrimination of women and minorities by exploiting their skillset and paying them lower wages than their white male counterparts (Noon, 2007). In even further divergence from the business case, research has highlighted that some countries and organisations have actually experienced negative consequences both in organisational performance and within capital markets after changing their existing board to include a more diverse range of people, with the potential of other attributing factors being overlooked (Bohren and Staubo, 2014).

Ideas of Justice and Fairness

While business case arguments have the overall goal of increasing women on boards, the presentation and ultimate message often becomes somewhat distorted when put into practice.  Instead, a focus on notions of justice and fairness in the advancement of diversity management will offer organisations and policy makers fewer avenues to refute the implementation of diversity strategies. The social justice rationale for increasing the representation of women is based on the principle that women represent half of the population and should therefore represent half of the boards in power (Seierstad, 2016; Dahlerup, 2005).

The social justice rationale does not disregard the potential economic benefits completely, but promotes/advocates a genuine commitment to equality and justice. Changing the argument is not positioned here as a complete solution, but reflects a necessary step in the pursuit of gender parity on corporate boards.  It is argued here that a sole (and contingent) focus on diversity for economic benefits negates the importance of changing views towards women in organisations because it is ethically just.

References

Bøhren, Ø. and Staubo, S., 2014. Does mandatory gender balance work? Changing organizational form to avoid board upheaval. Journal of Corporate Finance28, pp.152-168.

Carter, D.A., Simkins, B.J. and Simpson, W.G., 2003. Corporate governance, board diversity, and firm value. Financial review38(1), pp.33-53.

Dahlerup*, D. and Freidenvall*, L., 2005. Quotas as a ‘fast track’to equal representation for women: Why Scandinavia is no longer the model. International Feminist Journal of Politics7(1), pp.26-48.

Noon, M., 2007. The fatal flaws of diversity and the business case for ethnic minorities. Work, employment and society21(4), pp.773-784.

Seierstad, C., 2015. Beyond the business case: The need for both utility and justice
rationales for increasing the share of women on boards. Corporate Governance: An International Review.

AuthorCheryl Hurst, University of Leeds

 

BBC interview with Dr Liz Oliver on Uber driver row

Dr Liz Oliver was invited to BBC Breakfast to talk about Uber’s appeal to the Employment Tribunal decision that a group of current and former Uber drivers should have been classed as workers rather than self-employed contractors.

Liz took part in an interview alongside Mr Farrar who was one of the claimants to the employment tribunal claim. She explained that the key issue was the identification and classification of a contract between Uber and the drivers. She pointed out that three contract forms are important to employment law: a contract DSC_4741of employment where the individual is an employee and has access to the full body of employment protection, a ‘worker’ contract which places the individual within the scope of some but not all employment protection (a kind of “employee-lite”) or self-employment where the service provider is in business on their own and falls outside of the scope of employment protection. At Employment Tribunal the claimants successfully showed that they were workers and that placed them within the scope of The National Minimum Wage provisions and the Working Time Regulations 1998 (which includes limits to working time and access to paid holiday). The key question was whether the way that the working relationship has been characterised by Uber companies within the written terms of their agreements with drivers and with passengers matched up to the ‘true relationship between the parties’. Uber describes the relationships in terms of agency. Rather than contracting with drivers to provide services to passengers, Uber describe their role is as an agent or broker; they simply bring drivers and passengers together. Ultimately the contract to take and provide a ride is between the driver and the passenger. The structure of these contractual relationships is at the heart of the Uber business model and the company has shown keen to defend its position. They were given leave to appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the hearing begins today.

A number of similar claims have been made by people who provide services through platforms so this decision will be watched closely by those who ‘participate in the platform economy’.  In Liz’s view the argument that Uber drivers are workers is a valid and strong one. However a favourable outcome for drivers would by no means end they story. An important question for examples is when drivers be considered to be workers, throughout the whole time that they are logged onto the App and ready to receive rides or only for the duration of the ride itself. Bottoming out questions such as these will test the how the architecture of existing regimes such as the framework of the national minimum wage accommodates the opportunities that platforms provide for flexible ways of working. Another question is how platforms would respond to further pressure to contract with service providers as workers. Would they seek to place more risk onto service providers to emulate self-employment more closely or would they assert more control over service providers in a manner more akin to employment? The growing body of litigation in the area of contract form is clearly playing a catalytic role in finding an appropriate way to combine flexibility and fairness. Here it seems that service providers themselves are pursuing a more ambitious set of outcomes than those proposed in the recent Taylor review of modern working practices.  Nevertheless litigation is a blunt tool when it comes to finding imaginative solutions. Could the key actors in the world of platform service provision find a space outside of this high stakes context to grapple with these issues? Innovation is, after all, at the heart of the development of the platform economy.

You can watch the interview through BBC iplayer although the programme is only available for 24 hours. BBC One (from 1h11m) 27th September – Broadcast

Out of work and low on enthusiasm: young Germans are tuning out of politics

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Every third German between 18 and 30 years old considers themselves to be in a “precarious” position, engaged in temporary, unstable or non-standard employment. This is happening against the backdrop of the glorious reputation of the German training and education system, low unemployment rate and comparatively generous welfare state.

And with an election just days away, question marks remain over this group. Will they radicalise, and support populist parties? Will they stay away from the polls altogether?

Economic uncertainty has disproportionately affected young workers, who are far more likely to find themselves in unstable employment than their older counterparts. Overall, 54% of employees between 15 and 24 work in atypical employment – 53% are on temporary contracts while a further 4% are self-employed.

We surveyed 1,000 Germans between the ages of 18 and 30, and found that economically insecure young people are more at risk of feeling estranged from politics. People in insecure employment are significantly more likely to be an undecided voter or to not vote at all.

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Question: How interested would you say you are in politics? Author provided

They are almost twice as likely to be uninterested in politics as young people in secure employment. And they are more frustrated: up to 40% of them say they can’t change anything with their vote – compared to only 16% of young people in secure work.

Support for Angela Merkel’s CDU is lower among young people in insecure work than among the general German population. However, 26.8% said they still intended to vote for her. That compares to the national estimate of 37%.

The social-democratic SPD is still the second strongest party. Yet its support is on the wane thanks to its “Agenda 2010” – a policy introduced when it was in government that launched labour market reforms enabling precarious forms of work in Germany. Only 14% of our group of young insecure workers would vote for SPD compared with the 20% projected share among the general population.

Not into smaller parties

The German election system is representative. Parties with more than 5% of the vote get seats in the lower house of parliament. This year, four additional parties are likely to make it into parliament.

Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing nationalist party is expected to secure 12% of the vote. Our survey shows AfD enjoys only a modest 4.3% support among young Germans, a share that does not increase among those out of stable work. The Liberals (FDP), who were absent from the lower house during the last legislative period, may get 9% of the youth vote, matching the predictions of the general vote – though we see much less support among young people in precarious work.

Left parties like the DieLinke or Greens get slightly higher shares of votes among young people in precarious work compared to people in stable work. Together, the smaller parties do get 5% of votes among young people but none attracts enough support to make it into parliament alone.

Reluctantly backing the status quo

Young Germans in precarious positions can’t seem to find a political party that represents their interests so they are likely to stay away from politics and elections. Surprisingly, if they do vote, they do as a majority support centre-right parties.

Politically, Angela Merkel has attracted a lot of support and respect for her open borders policy towards refugees. She is also credited with modernising the CDU, enabling the right to same sex marriage and making it legal for same-sex couples to adopt. Merkel’s CDU is a less conservative party than that of Helmut Kohl, which may be why it appeals to our group when they do vote.

At the same time, the Social Democrats have moved towards the middle and lost their distinct profile as a workers’ party committed to social justice.

A sociological explanation for this situation would be that precarity has already become part of an accepted new normality that the young generation does not rebel against. Rather than trying to change their lot with their vote, they turn their back on politics. They may come to change their minds on this point, but it doesn’t seem likely for this election.

Authors: Dr Vera Trappmann, University of Leeds; Dr Danat Valizade, University of Leeds
Originally published on The Conversion, 21st September, 2017

Alternatives to punitive workfare systems: evidence from the Parisian suburbs

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Dr Charles Umney, University of Leeds

Charles Umney, Ian Greer and Lisa Schulte reflect on their research into differential approaches to addressing social exclusion in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris.

Across Europe mainstream recipes for combatting poverty and social exclusion have failed. A recent Eurostat report put it this way:

The EU has not made any progress towards achieving its ‘Europe 2020’ social inclusion target, adopted in 2010, of lifting at least 20 million people from poverty and social exclusion by 2020.

This has happened as governments – British, German, and Nordic alike – have cut cash benefits and support services while rolling out strict job-search requirements and withdrawal of social benefits for noncompliance: all measures which were supposed to, in the UK government’s language, ‘make work pay’. Evidence mounts, however, that the people who are actually made to pay by these kinds of policies are the vulnerable groups they push into destitution.

‘Work-first’ social policy reflects an international consensus that is influenced by US-style workfare. It emphasises a more coercive and punitive approach to welfare recipients, the use of for-profit contractors to deliver welfare-to-work services, and market-based funding systems emphasising payment-by-results and more standardised service models. But as we have found from our field research in Seine-Saint-Denis, the relatively deprived banlieues North-East of Paris, there are holdouts against this drift toward workfare.

We examined insertion (‘integration’) services. This term denotes specific social services targeted at vulnerable groups (such as recovering drug addicts, single parents, young people from ‘sensitive urban areas’), with the aim not just of finding them a job, but also for helping to meet their wider needs such as secure housing or accessing welfare entitlements. In Seine-Saint-Denis – our fieldwork site – these services were delivered by a complex network of specialised small organisations, for-profit enterprises and charities. They offered traditional kinds of social work and had added employment-related training and employer-engagement schemes, aimed at specific groups of clients. Public funders stabilised this network through a preference for funding incumbent organisations on the ground, rather than creating an open market with commercial work-first provision. We interviewed front-line staff in various organisations charged with delivering welfare-to-work services (public, private or non-profit) as well as the funding organisations with whom they worked, examining up-close the business of delivering insertion services and the street-level consequences of policy change.

Provision of services for the unemployed by private for-profit organisations are controversial in France. But attempts have been made to expand the role of large for-profit enterprises: Multinational firms such as Australian-based Ingeus and Yorkshire-based A4e have sought to establish commercial provision, and also larger nonprofits such as Groupe SOS have emerged as vocal critics of the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos in French social services. In the new President, Emmanuel Macron, such organisations will likely find a highly sympathetic ear. Indeed, Macron’s party, En Marche!, has promised to:

encourage cooperation and mergers which will allow businesses in the Economie Sociale et Solidaire [i.e. nonprofits] to insert themselves into the value chain, to change scale to “better” respond to social and environmental needs, and to respond to the requirements of public orders, notably in terms of volume.

Our findings indicate that such a change of scale might be a disservice to those who need support the most.

While Pôle emploi (the French equivalent of Job Centre Plus) has adopted some of these characteristics, the employment services targeted specifically at disadvantaged populations continue to operate very differently. These services are usually provided by smaller non-profits which do not have the power or inclination to sanction service users. Front-line staff tend to approach their work with the ethos of social work, and service users’ progression through different organisations is handled by long-established informal contacts between associations rather than competitive contracting between government and firms.

In Seine-Saint-Denis we asked: why do these kinds of systems for these kinds of service users remain strong in France, while they have been integrated into workfare-type systems in many other countries?

One part of the explanation is that the people involved in delivering these services – i.e. those charged with overseeing the implementation of public policy at ‘street level’  — see obvious advantages to the insertion approach. It means that local services evolve in tandem with local needs, and interventions are adapted to problems that they observe on the ground, rather than being purely determined by the priorities of national policymakers. Staff in insertion providers can provide a more tailored and in-depth service to individual service users. Under these circumstances a much less coercive and sanctions-centric approach to service users becomes possible and the undesirable consequences of for-profit provision are mitigated, such as ‘creaming and parking’, where front-line staff systematically focus effort on the least needy.

The resilience of this landscape can be seen in the attempts to impose greater private provision through initiatives such as the Sarkozy-era contrat d’autonomie. For-profit organisations have found it difficult to enter this terrain. To recruit service users, they needed to penetrate the pre-existing network of providers, but there was often suspicion that an organisation with a profit motive will not share the ethos of the insertion network.

In Britain, such resistance has been overcome through authoritarian and centralising means: central government extending its authority over local welfare-to-work networks, marginalising existing networks and forcing through the entry of large multinational for-profit organisations. The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and regional Learning and Skills Councils, along with severe cuts to local authority budgets reinforced this centralisation trend. As a result, services for the unemployed are increasingly the domain either of Jobcentres or large firms, with local customised services on the decline.

In France, by contrast, local control has been maintained, protecting insertion providers. The Pôle emploi – which is responsible for enforcing job-search requirements for the unemployed – is only one player among many in local networks of funders, planners, and providers that carry out insertion. In some regions, it is local government rather than the Pôle emploi that pays the minimum out-of-work benefit. This administrative fragmentation enhances local control, thereby reducing the state’s capacity to implement harsh workfare policies.

It remains to be seen how insertion will fare under Macron, who has a clear preference for neoliberal international policy orthodoxies. But greater private provision and a more sanctions-centred approach would be both difficult and counterproductive. To forcibly marginalise non-profit insertion networks the French state would have to reverse its long-term shift towards decentralization, and this disruption would jettison what is good about insertion and replace it with a model which has, in other countries, inflicted large amounts of misery on vulnerable people. If Macron is serious about ‘reforming’ French welfare-to-work systems in this direction, the result is likely to be a lot of pain for negligible gain. However, it would be a neat parallel of the wider package of austerity measures that have been imposed across European economies more generally in the last decade.

For the wider world, insertion offers an under-appreciated alternative to the largely failed project of marketised workfare systems. They also provide a reminder that public policies are to a large extent made at the street level, and that any policy to punish the poor will need to go hand-in-hand with the extensive state-led reordering of public services and the marginalisation of professional staff on the front line.

Kate Hardy launches ‘Housing and mental health network’

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A major research finding from a recent study into displacement from London during the housing crisis found that 89% of respondents mentioned worsening mental health as a result of their unstable housing situation.

Kate and her colleague from the University of Manchester, Tom Gillespie used their findings to hold a “Housing is a Mental Health issue” event on Wednesday 26th April in East London. The event brought together scholars, activists and practitioners working on issues relating to local housing policy, austerity and its links to psychological distress.

Over 80 people attended the event, including local residents, members of The Mental Health Resistance Network, NHS workers, Psychologists for Social Change members, CAB, local academics and many other organisations. Bringing together so many people with a wealth of experience and knowledge, including both lay experts and professional practitioners raised the possibility of using these findings influence real change in the area of housing and mental health.

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Following presentation from the report authors and researchers from Focus E15 campaign group, as well as a speaker from Debt Resistance UK, participants were invited to think together about the ways in which we could use the shared knowledge in the room to tackle issues of housing and homelessness. This raised various issues including a desire to unlock services, link up professionals, safe spaces and community control, as increasing the availability of high quality social housing as solutions to the combined mental health and housing crisis.

The event also enabled us to officially launch the “Housing and Mental Health Network”. This will be a partnership between local communities, homeless charities, mental health charities, community/clinical psychologists, artists, social workers, community workers, teachers and academics addressing issues of mental health, austerity, housing and homelessness. Through the establishment of the “Housing and Mental Health Network” we hope to generate new partnerships which will address this issue in the long term. We will do this by developing research projects, undertaking advocacy work and raising awareness through events, artistic productions and informational material.

Watch a video about the project here: http://business.leeds.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/blog/article/video-homelessness-health-and-housing/

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Dr Kate Hardy is an Associate Professor in Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds.

The key to a solicitor’s career success? Creating connections

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By Juliet Kele, Doctoral Student and Teaching Fellow, WERD

Employment lawyers regularly counsel and advise both employers and employees on a diverse matter of workplace related issues, but do they ever reflect upon the employment relationship, and inclusive working practices within their own firms? Historically, the legal profession has been perceived as an ‘old boys club’ – and can still be argued as such in modern times. The senior positions in most law firms are filled with middle-aged, white men (‘male, pale and stale’). These issues have animated my research in aiming to discover whether a smaller law firm size has a favourable impact upon the career progression of female and ethnic-minority lawyers.

The findings of this research reveal that while smaller law firms were thought to have a more supportive culture than larger firms – in terms of implementing flexible-working initiatives and being ‘family-friendly’ employers – lawyers with high levels of social capital were looked upon more favourably at each career progression round.

Using interviews conducted within Yorkshire small and medium-sized legal practices (firms with fewer than 250 employees), my research considers how career progression is experienced by a diverse range of employees and the factors perceived to influence career progression in this context. My analysis shows that a crucial factor perceived as having a positive effect upon career progression – regardless of the smaller firm size – was that of having high levels of social capital: favourable connections and networks.

Some individuals acknowledged their ‘luck’ of good connections – for example, paralegals being able to move companies with their supervisors – and individuals gaining their current position through connections or recommendations. Moreover, it was felt that in smaller law firms, competing against fewer colleagues, individuals may be able to foster a closer mentoring and sponsorship relationship with supervisors than in larger businesses. This, in turn, may be beneficial to career advancement as management come to recognise and acknowledge the efforts of their staff.

Part of a solicitor’s work responsibilities is the development of connections and constant networking. These are highly-desirable skills, not only for the business interests of the company but are also for accelerating the speed of career progression. However, my research demonstrates this may be easier for some groups than for others.

While the smaller law firms were considered to have more supportive cultures than larger firms, for female lawyers aspiring to progress their careers, as reported by the Law Society Gazette, one main stumbling block endured: the choice between career and family. The general impression was that there were still ‘fairly limited opportunities’ for progression in law firms for female employees who wished to have families. Due to familial responsibilities, they felt unable to commit to the extensive demands on their time in terms of networking in connection to both servicing existing and generating new clients, often known as ‘rainmaking’.

Female employees admitted that being a woman in the legal profession was ‘difficult’. Although they had invested heavily into their legal education, they still felt that their colleagues expected them to have children. While some female employees thought that they should not have to choose between prioritising family and work, others said that there was still a ‘sacrifice’ to be made for women in the legal profession. Moreover, two female solicitors directly stated that being pregnant was a career obstacle and disadvantage they had experienced.

Similarly, minority ethnic lawyers also had greater levels of commitments outside of work; either relating to religious observations, responsibilities to both their close and extended families and in assisting their wider communities. The legal profession itself was criticised: with long-working hours and frequent late-nights, networking and weekend work, maintaining a work-life balance was challenging – as one respondent said: ‘something’s got to give’. The opportunity cost here is deciding whether to dedicate more time to family life or to career advancement.

Working-fathers also made sacrifices, but they came at more of a personal than career cost. Work-life balance was important to them, as their ‘biggest career driver’ were their new families. Some working-fathers also criticised the legal profession stating it was ‘a younger man’s game’ – they said that their priorities now shifted more towards a family-focus and being at home with their families; rather than rain-making for their employers.

In sum, from my research, these smaller law firms and their workforces recognise the importance assigned by its valuable ‘knowledge workers’ to maintaining a ‘work-life balance’. These legal practices thus awarded more prominence to the implementation of flexible-working practices than larger companies.

This smaller company size was felt by employees – especially those with external commitments – to have a more accommodating organisational culture than larger law firms. Despite this, with importance continuously placed on a long-hours culture, building connections and constant networking, lawyers with the highest social capital levels will make the most advances in their careers. These lawyers continue to be of the ‘male, pale and stale’ variety.