Equality: a matter of choice?
Three years on, are the Society's equality standards about to be upgraded from their present voluntary status? Not yet, but interest is being monitored
In early 2015, the Law Society of Scotland published a new set of equality standards. At the time, it indicated that after three years a review would take place to assess whether the standards should become mandatory rules. What can solicitors expect to happen next?
For those nervous at the prospect of yet more rules, there is no move to mandatory application – yet. Sadly, the Equality & Diversity Committee, which is monitoring the standards, has found takeup to be lower than expected. However, it hopes that a further push for voluntary action now may produce better results ahead of the review that it still intends to carry out in a year’s time.
“We’re going to spend the next year focusing on trying to increase voluntary uptake and then look at reviewing the situation at the end of 2018 to see where to take it from there,” explains Elaine MacGlone, the Society’s equality and diversity manager. “If we’re very successful in uptake then we’ll know it’s working; if not we can look at changes to the status of the standards. That’s in the plan for the new practice year.”
She admits that when speaking to individual practices and organisations, they can be concerned about how to apply the standards to their particular business, but insists: “They are designed to be simple and flexible so that any organisation has the ability to benefit from them.
“The standards are designed to be applicable to all sorts of different organisations, all sizes of firms. When we first brought them in we had a one partner firm, as well as some big firms taking them up, so it shows you there is flexibility there.”
This can be seen from the way the standards are set out. From the opening directive, they are to be applied by each employer “in a manner appropriate to its services and proportionate to its size”. They charge employers with putting in place, and reviewing annually, an equality strategy, but refrain from stipulating its content, other than that it has “measurable objectives”. In similar fashion they call for a training plan for staff on equality and diversity; an equal pay statement, to be made freely available; and accessibility options for disabled and other service users also to be documented and made available.
Underpinning them, there is to be a named “equality lead”, responsible for ensuring the standards are observed and carrying out the required reviews. It is this aspect that allows the Society to engage with organisations who are committing to the equality standards.
“It’s a self-reporting system,” MacGlone points out. “At the moment we record the names of the equality leads, so we can see quite easily what firms are interested and have appointed an equality lead. That’s the first standard, because having somebody to lead on the work is vital. You need someone to push it on.”
She adds: “They are good standards; they are helpful; they are there to help people comply with their legal duties, but also to change cultures within firms and organisations to be inclusive. Leading from the top is one of the keys to that. Organisations that embed the standards will feel a benefit.”
The gender pay gap has been much the most publicised equality issue within the profession, but the standards are all-embracing. “To be fair the gender pay gap was big news in the profession at the time it came out,” MacGlone agrees, “so it’s no surprise people linking the two, but the equality standards cover all the protected characteristics. The focus though isn’t about compliance with the law – that should be a given – but rather how do we help ensure that the profession is an equal and diverse place to work.”
And she emphasises that the Society is keen to offer advice. “The main thing if people are interested and want to learn more about the standards is to get in touch with myself or Rob Marrs [secretary to the committee] to see what we can do to help – even a discussion about one particular element of the standards. We’ll be pleased to help.”
Finally, it’s been a while since the Society last carried out its “Profile of the Profession” survey, which provided the much-quoted data on gender pay gap, and more, but this will also be repeated in 2018. Perhaps that will give a true picture as to what progress has been made – and whether tighter controls are needed.
The standards can be found on the Society’s website.
There is also a detailed framework giving more advice and suggestions for how to embed the standards: see it here.
Elaine MacGlone was named Diversity and Inclusion Manager of the Year at the recent ICON 2017 awards – something of a surprise, she says, as nominations are anonymous. “So I didn’t actually hear what people were saying about me. It was a great honour, but we’re very much about teamwork here so it’s an award for everybody who is involved in the work that I do. That’s how I look at it.”