Back to top
Article

The room at the top

1 September 03

Opinions on what barriers are still in place to prevent women reaching the top, as the Society embarks on major research into the role of women in the profession

by Roger Mackenzie

Recent research from England and Wales which reveals that male trainees earn an average of £1,319 a year more than their female counterparts, suggests that, there at least, the glass ceiling remains shatter-proof.

Yet while in Scotland there is little evidence of disparity at fledgling levels of the profession, a perception remains that despite Elish Angiolini’s appointment as Solicitor General and with women such as Lindy Patterson at MacRoberts and Alayne Swanson at Maclays now at the top of some of Scotland’s biggest firms, women remain under-represented in partner and senior level positions.

Next month, The Law Society of Scotland in conjunction with the Equal Opportunities Commission will write to every member of the profession to canvass opinion on the issue with a view to publishing their findings in April 2004. If research suggests the glass ceiling remains in place, consideration will be given to implementing strategies to tackle the problem.

Three years ago researchers at the University of Dundee reported in the Journal that 55% of the profession thought there was a glass ceiling, and 58% believed promotion favoured men. They identified three key issues which reinforced the glass ceiling, namely restricted networking opportunities, child rearing and to a lesser extent, vestiges of old fashioned sexism.

So to what extent do these problems still apply? If the small sample of solicitors contacted by the Journal is representative, it seems opinions remain divided.

As Chief Executive of Morton Fraser, working on a part-time, job share basis with her deputy, Dorothy Kellas, the example of Linda Urquhart seems like the epitome of a utopian vision of how law firms and business at large could operate.

In fact, she acknowledges there are times when inevitably there are “creaks and cracks in the whole system” of getting that work/family balance and can understand why many women simply opt-out.

“When women are bringing up a family as well, they are effectively doing two jobs. As a profession we have been a little slow to react to ways in which we can encourage women to remain in the profession.”

While the idea that women are not getting on simply because they are women is no longer viable, argues Urquhart, she recognises there are people who find themselves working in an environment where times and attitudes have not changed.

However, she’s keen for the debate on flexible working to be all incorporating.

“I am slightly reluctant that the whole issue is focused on women and children. There are men and women within our business who need flexibility to cope with the demands of various family circumstances which might include people caring for elderly relatives.”

Yet in some firms a macho, long hours culture prevails, where to leave before 7pm is to be viewed as not pulling your weight, and flexible working is scorned as a slacker’s charter.

“I would be worried if the profession is still measuring people’s performance on the hours they put in. I describe myself as a full time partner working part time hours, and we do not measure it purely on the hours you put in, it’s about commitment,” says Linda Urquhart.

For her one of the critical things firms can do is develop team working so that clients can rely on a team of people rather than an individual. There is a perception that some areas of law, such as corporate, do not lend themselves to flexible working hours. Clients’ expectations are the driving force, and sometimes that demands long hours, says Fiona Nicholson of Maclay Murray & Spens.

But Kim Pattullo of Ledingham Chalmers argues that to retain the best staff, firms will have to change anyway and be willing to offer flexible working packages, for men as well as women.

At Morton Fraser, they have a banking partner and family lawyer on part-time hours, and while Urquhart admits it “takes a bit of organising”, there is no reason why any job cannot be tailored to part-time hours, especially with people better able to work from home.

Yet while notions of a conspiratorial glass ceiling may have vanished, on a subliminal level it will always exist for many women, argues Elizabeth Baker, who has recently moved to Bird Semple after running her own practice for seven years.

“For a woman, there is always likely to be that conflict between child rearing and professional practice. If one of the children isn’t well, it has always been my unspoken responsibility to be off work.

“I think if you were to ask all working women, their success is tarred with guilt. If you are too successful, you think men will look at you and think she has pursued her career at the expense of her family, but if you are not as successful as you could be, then you have under-achieved by putting your family first.

“We need to be good professionals, good wives, good mothers, good socialites, all things to all people. Many women are all mixed up with too many roles to do. I do not know any man who has as many roles as a woman.

“I think many women would love to burst their head through the glass ceiling, but end up just trying not to fall through the floor. But I do not think men have us in a harness and are trying to hold us back and I’m sure there will be a time soon when women can be professionals and mothers without feeling guilt.”

Bird Semple partner Frank Fletcher suggests that in many places, while there is no glass ceiling imposed by the male members of the profession, at least not knowingly, the experience of someone like Elizabeth Baker indicates that there is a biological ceiling in the form of the internal conflict a female practitioner has about the time and attention being given to the practice as against their family commitments, which will often weigh heavily.

He thinks that perhaps explains why a sizeable firm of predominantly female partners has yet to emerge.

“We would take a long term view that a few periods of maternity leave over 30 years of a working life is absolutely fine. In fact, we’ve taken on another partner who is expecting a baby and she is going to be on maternity leave more or less straight away, but she has what we’re looking for, and that’s our only consideration.”

Like Fletcher, Alasdair Fleming at Bird Semple has found that at trainee level, females often bring more life skills to the job, and is surprised and disappointed that so much female talent disappears from the profession and fails to break through at a more senior level.

Fleming said: “I think the statistics speak for themselves but the number and calibre of female lawyers coming into the profession must change that in the long term.

“People coming through and staying have been largely male over the years, but now I think we’re starting to see that change.

“Firms will have to be flexible and encourage home working so that people who want to have a family can still have a real involvement in the firm.”

Anne O’Connell, a construction partner with Bishops, takes the view there is a glass ceiling which works to the disadvantage of all.

“Personally speaking, I would not like to think there was any sort of ceiling preventing me from being in the position I want to be in. But I think the glass ceiling exists as a form of protectionism that exists in firms that affects both sexes. Some people see those coming up as a threat and that prevents development in firms.”

In her case, she took time out from working full time for ten years to raise her family, but despite attending courses and working part time, she does remember people questioning whether she could pick it up again because she had fallen out of the normal career progression.

 “Firms need to ensure that when a woman wants to return to work after a period of bringing up her family, the obstacles in her way aren’t insurmountable”, says O’Connell.

While there are still occasional examples of female solicitors being confused with secretaries, and, in spite of the growth of women’s business networks, networking opportunities remain rooted in male culture, opinion suggests that though not all areas of practice are conducive to flexible working, that will be the key to retaining the services of talented working mothers and ensuring that for the next generation of female lawyers there is no need for surveys of the kind The Society is about to undertake.

Linda Urquhart, for one, is confident that in time such debate will become a thing of the past - and in fact the profession will come to realise that being a woman is a positive advantage.

“We have softer skills, when you are managing client expectations, managing relationships with clients, being a good lawyer is about all the extras over and above technical knowledge. It’s not politically correct to say so, but women are better at that.”