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Equality: is it practised?

11 December 17

Reported experience of sexual harassment adds a further dimension to this year’s Journal employment survey, which also reveals pay and career trends and latest views of the economic outlook

by Peter Nicholson

A flat, tending to negative economic outlook – apart from the gloom of the public sector; signs that the gender pay gap may be narrowing; and a sizeable minority who conceal their problems with stress. These headlines, courtesy of the Journal’s 2017 employment survey, help to paint the picture of the Scottish solicitors’ profession as the year closes.

Harassment: how big a problem?

First, however, a look at the issue that exploded in recent weeks as a hitherto hidden scandal. With the avalanche of allegations in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, with few walks of life remaining unscathed, it seemed appropriate to attempt to assess the extent to which Journal readers have been affected by sexual harassment (which admittedly we did not attempt to define, allowing readers to decide whether they regarded themselves as having been targeted in this way).

Individuals’ comments appeared on last month’s correspondence page, giving a flavour of the spread of responses. When these are broken down as between men and women, some marked differences emerge – but it is certainly not the case that victims are invariably female. 

At the outset, it should be said that a majority of women (53.4%) as well as men (71.9%) say they have not suffered any form of sexual harassment at work and are not aware of it happening. However, around a quarter (28.7% of women, and 24.4% of men) know of one or more others who claim to have suffered. And women are about four times as likely to have experienced it directly, with 8.8% claiming to have been the target on one occasion and 13.4% more than once, compared with 2.1% and 3.7% for men.

More than likely (52.7%) the perpetrator is someone more senior. Dealing with sexual harassment when it occurs is also seen as a problem. Whereas 38.7% overall believe their employers would take appropriate steps if they made a complaint, 13.4% (and 16.9% of women) would not feel confident to do so. Only one individual checked the box “I have made a complaint and am satisfied as to the way it was dealt with”; several others did so and were left unsatisfied. Some commented that they feared it would affect their career prospects to complain; some switched jobs as a result. Some suggest that the climate may have changed for the better in recent years; for others it is clearly still a serious issue – and bullying, sex discrimination and intolerance of religion were also variously mentioned in passing as issues in some workplaces.

“Thank you for publishing the survey. I am just this week (as a result of media coverage of the issue) taking steps to address the bullying and harassment (sometimes physical) I have suffered. Please continue to support a zero tolerance approach in the workplace. Can you provide guidance via the Journal and possibly training?”­

Economic uncertainty

Private practice has performed better than many solicitors expected a year ago. Or perhaps that should read “not as badly as”. In essence, our survey reveals that the economic outlook for many legal firms is little changed on the previous year. That contrasts with 12 months ago, when the number expecting things to get worse outweighed the more optimistic by close to 30% in practices of more than 10 principals, and by lower percentages in smaller firms. Now, however, between 64% and 78% in nearly all sizes of Scottish practice believe the outlook as affecting their firm has remained about the same over the year (for sole principal practices the figure was 38%, and for UK and international firms 58%); and a balance of the remaining respondents report some improvement, except in firms of fewer than five partners. All this is shown in table 1.

The survey did not explore the reasons why – but it may be that the negative impact that many expect from Brexit has yet to arrive, like Brexit itself. Certainly solicitors in all sectors remain almost as pessimistic as last year about its effects, when these do hit home. While a sizeable minority, varying between 25% and 40% depending on the size of practice, expect no significant effect (and there are also an average of 18% “don’t knows”), at least as many in each sector, and just over 50% overall, expect prospects to be either “somewhat” or “very” adversely affected by our withdrawal from the EU. They vastly outnumber the very few who believe it will lead to any sort of improvement (only 3% overall, spread across most sectors).

What about prospects for in-house lawyers? Solicitors in the commercial sector have seen a less marked change in sentiment. Indeed those in listed companies now take a more negative view of the last 12 months than they anticipated a year ago, the “worse over better” margin having widened from 5.3% to 15.6% compared with forecast time last year, though their private company counterparts are now somewhat less negative (11.4% against 20%). For both, just under half report the outlook as little changed.

Looking ahead, a mixed picture emerges. Asked how they expect the economic outlook for their organisation to have changed in 12 months’ time, those in smaller firms (up to 10 principals) on balance expect a worsening scene – as do a small balance of those in UK and international practices – whereas a somewhat more positive view is taken by those in the larger Scottish firms.

All should spare a thought, however, for in-house lawyers in the public sector. Absolutely no respondents from local government or local public bodies reported any improvement in outlook over the past 12 months, the only difference lying between the 80%+ who reported a worsening outlook and the 19% who said things were much the same. Nor does anyone actually expect matters to improve over the next year – there are just more replying “about the same”, as well as quite a number of “don’t knows”. At national level also, only a handful claim to have experienced, or to predict, any improvement: the main difference is the larger number who reply “about the same”, hence the still strongly, but less overwhelmingly, negative sentiment.

All of that somewhat cautious sentiment is broadly consistent with table 2, which shows a reported 37% of employers enjoying headcount growth over the last year, showing a positive margin over the 26% who have made redundancies, but a smaller gap than the 41%-18% in last year’s survey. More have been involved in mergers or takeovers; slightly fewer have a pay freeze; and figures for benefits and bonuses have seen relatively little change.

Narrowing gap?

Given all the publicity over gender pay gaps, has there been any change in the pattern within the profession?

Each year’s survey has a different set of respondents, but this year the number taking part recovered from last year’s dip, so it may provide some useful clues. And it is at least possible that the gender pay gap is narrowing. If we compare tables 3 and 4, we see that exactly half of women qualified more than 20 years (and working full time or self-employed) come into the lowest four columns of table 3 (earning less than £60,000), compared with 36.9% of men – a noticeable difference, but looking at the previous two surveys, the women’s figure has come down from 61% in 2016 and 69% in 2015 while the percentage of men has changed little. At the other end of the scale, over 45% of women (at any PQE level) reported earnings in the six-figure brackets compared with 56.4% of men, continuing a trend which has seen the percentage of men stay between 55 and 60% but the women come up from 17% in 2015, to 26% last year, to this year’s 45%. Admittedly, men appear still to dominate at the very highest levels.

However, there are still discernible differences even among the recently qualified, who have relatively few family commitments and where we might expect clearer equality. At 0-2 years qualified, the tables show most women falling into the first two salary columns, whereas the highest numbers of men are already in columns 2 and 3. And without the pattern being entirely uniform, male averages tend to remain higher as post-qualifying experience increases.

The explanation may well lie in men advancing more rapidly, as much as in pay differentials at the same level. To take one snapshot, of those up to four years qualified, 34% of our male respondents had reached associate level, compared with 11.3% of women; 34% of men in the 4-10 years band also enjoy this status, compared with 27% of women. (It would be a further exercise to work out whether men are more likely to win promotion, or to move to a different job.)

In-house, there is also a gap, though a smaller one: 18.4% of men are in promoted posts by the time they are 10 years qualified, compared with 13% of women; between 10-20 years the comparison is 24.4% to 16.3%.

Also, while the tables are based only on those working full time (in order to try to ensure like-for-like comparisons), this cuts out about a quarter of female respondents in the 4-10 years’ PQE band – and more than 40% at 10-20 years’ PQE, compared with only 5% of men.

Another striking figure is that of women between 4-10 years’ PQE working full time, 81.6% have no dependants, whereas for men at the same level the proportion is only 47.4% – in other words, men are nearly three times as likely still to be working full time once they have family commitments. Between 10-20 years’ PQE the differential falls to 49.3% women compared with 34.7% men, but by then, as noted, 41% of women have gone part time. It is clear where the main burden of family care still falls, with obvious career implications.It has to be conceded, therefore, that career, and earnings, equality is unlikely to be achieved as long as women remain the principal family carers – something that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Legal aid doldrums

Once again we also mark the difficulties faced by the legal aid sector. Of those for whom legal aid work takes up more than half of their time, more than 60% earn less than £50,000 a year, and nearly a quarter less than £30,000. Half have seen static or falling earnings over the past year, and 63% say they are “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” with their pay. Even those for whom it takes up less than half their work show a similar pattern, with 55% having seen no change or decreased earnings and 51.7% feeling dissatisfied with their income level.

For comparison, across all respondents the satisfaction returns were 10.1% very satisfied; 51.1% satisfied; 29.4% unsatisfied; and 9.4% very unsatisfied. Overall, 8% have seen earnings go down in the past year; 27.4% report no change; 31% an increase up to 2%; 13.6% up to 5%; and 20% have seen higher rises – earnings changes being linked to promotion or other job change in just over a quarter of cases.

Hidden stress

For the second year we asked about stress levels among solicitors. While some of the replies are consistent with last time, fewer (45.5% against 54%) say they have a stressful job but feel they can handle the stress, whereas 14% say stress can be a problem but they have chosen not to discuss it with anyone – an option we added this year in response to reader feedback. While fewer – 4.5% against 8% – state that stress is a problem and they don’t know who to turn to, the figures taken together mean that nearly one in five solicitors have a hidden stress problem that they have not shared with anyone.

Overall, 41%, if not actively seeking a new job, would pursue one if the right one came up. Interestingly, in view of the career progression figures noted above, the figures are little different for men and women – so why are men advancing more rapidly? If, as we report in this article, the Society’s Profile of the Profession survey is to be repeated next year, this is one area it could usefully explore in the cause of equality.

More women respond to survey

Thank you to the 877 people who took part in this year’s Journal employment survey – well up on last year, and with a higher proportion of women (up from 62% to 66%) compared with men (34%, down from 38%), and also in-house lawyers (up from 32% to 34%).

This time we changed the “working hours” questions to find out how much voluntary extra readers do. Almost 30% say they work up to five hours a week beyond their contracted working hours; nearly 31% say 5-10 hours extra (especially men more than 20 years qualified); and 22.7% claim regularly to work more than 10 hours a week extra – most likely in the 4-10 and 10-20 years’ PQE bands. More than 26% (up from 23%) say work encroaches “a lot”, and 47.6% (down from 50%) say “to some extent”, on their personal life; 24% (down from 28%) do not expect to take all of this year’s holiday entitlement.

The most commonly conferred employee benefits are shown in Table 5, along with last year’s positions. We had not realised that cycle-to-work schemes are so common, until we added it this year in response to reader feedback – though suspect they are not always taken up when offered.

For the most recent comparable reports, see Journal, December 2016, 12, and Journal, December 2015, 12.

Table 1. Better or worse? The outlook for your organisation
(balance of responses, better v worse, last year’s return in brackets)
Type of employer Change over the past 12 months Predicted for next 12 months
Sole principal –6.9% (–25%) –25% (0)
2-5 principals –9.2% (0) –18.6% (–13.5%)
6-10 principals +15.7% (–12.5%) –6.3% (–6.2%)
11-20 principals +7.7% (–40%) +2.6% (–30%)
21+ principals +6.4% (–39.5%) +8.2% (–28.9%)
UK/international firms –10% (n/a) –4% (n/a)
Private companies –11.4% (–5.0%) +2.3% (–20%)
Listed companies –15.6% (–26.3%) –12.5% (–5.3%)
Public sector (national body) –52.3% (–58.8%) –54.5% (–54.9%)
Public sector (local body) –80.9% (–84.6%) –73.5% (–79.2%)
Table 2. Has your organisation experienced any of the following over the past 12 months?
(all sectors)
  % % change on 2016
Headcount growth 37.2 –3.6
Redundancies 25.9 4.7
Pay freeze 18.7 –2.5
Merger or takeover 17.5 3.2
Bonuses reduced, suspended or scrapped 12 –1.8
Benefits introduced or increased 8.5 1.1
Benefits reduced, suspended or scrapped 7.7 –1.5
Bonuses introduced or increased 7.2 –3.0
Compulsory overtime 2.8 –0.3
Reduced working hours/days – voluntary 3 –0.3
Reduced working hours/days – compulsory 2.1 0.3
Don't know 18.7 –0.4
Table 3. Salary spread, in percentages, by years’ PQE: female
(full-time or self-employed, all sectors)
Years’ PQE < £30,000 £30,000-39,999 £40,000-49,999 £50,000-50,999 £60,000-69,999 £70,000-79,999 £80,000-89,999 £90,000-99,999 >£100,000
0-2 25.5 58.8 9.8 0 2.0 2.0 0 0 2.0
2-4 7.5 47.5 35.0 2.5 2.5 5.0 0 0 0
4-10 3.3 27.2 33.7 16.3 5.4 4.4 2.2 2.2 5.5
10-20 14 17.1 13.2 13.2 13.2 7.9 10.5 6.6 17.1*
>20 4.9 11.0 18.3 15.8 14.6 4.9 6.1 2.6 35.5*
Table 4. Salary spread, in percentages, by years’ PQE: male
(full-time or self-employed, all sectors)
Years’ PQE < £30,000 £30,000-39,999 £40,000-49,999 £50,000-50,999 £60,000-69,999 £70,000-79,999 £80,000-89,999 £90,000-99,999 >£100,000
0-2 7.7 53.8 23.1 3.8 7.7 3.8 0 0 0
2-4 4.2 45.8 29.2 12.5 4.2 0 0 0 4.2
4-10 0 17.6 23.5 17.6 14.7 8.8 11.8 2.9 2.9
10-20 2.0 7.8 7.8 25.5 13.7 13.7 11.8 3.9 13.8*
>20 6.6 5.3 11.8 13.2 5.3 13.2 6.6 2.6 35.5**
* Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 12.5%F/11.8%M; £150-£199,999: 2.8%F; £250,000+:1.4%F/2.0M
** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 12.2%F/11.8%M; £150-£199,999: 9.2%M%; £200,000-249,999: 7.3%F/1.3%M; £250,000+: 1.2%F/13.2%M
Table 5. Which benefits do you currently receive?
(top responses, all sectors; last year’s position in brackets)
1 More than 25 days' holiday per year (excluding public holidays) (1) 45.6%
2 Cycle to work scheme (n/a) 42.3%
3 Smartphone/tablet/computer(2) 37.3%
4 Private health care (3) 34.2%
5 Life or health insurance (4) 30.1%
6 Childcare/crèche or vouchers (9) 29.8%
7 Ability to buy/sell annual leave (8) 29.0%
8 Training support (work related) (7) 27.1%
9 Pension (other than as below) (6) 26.5%
10 Cash bonus (individual performance) (5) 26.0%
11 Cash bonus (firm performance) (11) 21.6%
12 Pension (money purchase) (13) 20.2%
13 Pension (stakeholder) (10)   18.8%
14 Pension (final salary) (14) 17.8%
15 Assistance with transport (including season ticket loan but not car allowance) (12) 17.0%
  No benefits 5.7%



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