As the Law Society publishes the findings of its gender equality roundtables, Past President Alison Atack reflects on the progress made across the profession to promote gender equality, the work still to do and tangible ways people can help.
The publication of the output of our gender equality roundtables is an important moment for the profession. I was President of the Society when the Profile of the Profession was launched and also as work began on roundtables, which took place across the profession. Before I demit office as Past President, I thought some reflection may be helpful.
We have seen considerable work across the profession to try and promote gender equality in recent years. Last year, as we marked 100 years of women in law, there were major events hosted by the ourselves, the Scottish Government, the Faculty of Advocates, the University of Glasgow and many others.
I know so many gained inspiration from hearing Lady Hale at Glasgow, Dame Eilish Angiolini QC at the Faculty, and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC here at the Society. More than this, it was fantastic to see so many members engaging positively with this vital area of work. A personal highlight was the First 100 Years photography project, which so many women across the Scottish legal sector took part in.
Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970 – a landmark piece of legislation. There is no doubt that we have made significant steps since the passing of that Act, but there are, in the profession and across the wider economy, still a number of steps to make on our journey.
Our own work continued with our team meeting with over 900 solicitors last year to discuss the Profile of the Profession report. Numerous organisations went further, hosting roundtables to discuss in a structured way gender equality in the profession focusing on important matters, such as bias, the pay gap, bullying, and flexible working.
The output of these roundtables has been brought together and published today. They bring together the experience of many of our members and shine a light on areas where progress is still needed. At points, they may be difficult reading.
I would like to take the time to thank everyone who took part in the roundtables for speaking with such candour and helping define what we as a Society, and as a profession, should do next. I’d also like to thank the Society’s team for pulling the roundtable reports from different organisations into these four documents. Over the next few weeks and months, we will look at the suggestions that were made to the Society and return to the profession with a plan of action.
Of course, our thoughts right now are dominated by how we respond to the impact of Covid-19. That shouldn’t mean we forget about other important matters and it certainly shouldn’t mean we let our progress towards equality in the profession slip.
Already, we are seeing reports from the estimable First 100 Years project that there are signs Covid-19 is exacerbating inequality in the profession. It would shame us all if the hard-won progress on equality in the profession was lost. The promotion of equality and diversity is always the right thing to do and, happily, it also makes business sense.
Coming out of the roundtables, there were many suggestions about what individual solicitors could do to help make the profession a better place to work. It is understandable when confronted with large, complex issues that individuals may struggle to see how they can make a difference. Let me assure you that you can.
There’s no denying that some of the remaining matters we need to grapple with in terms of gender equality are huge. How do we battle the perniciousness of unconscious bias? How do we end once and for all bullying and harassment in the profession? How do we make sure flexible working works for everyone and allows for a proper work-life balance? How do we ensure fairness around pay and progression?
Some of that may be answered by the Society, some by organisations and some by individuals changing their behaviours. And it is individuals that I would like to focus on, because I have such huge faith in the ability, the collegiality, the kindness, and the wisdom of our members.
There are thousands of people within the profession: solicitors, paralegals, secretaries, professionals from other backgrounds (HR, accountancy, IT, marketing) and many more. Imagine if every person made just one small change to help the cause of gender equality.
We might worry that our own action would not make a huge difference. However, all of those small changes would add up to tens of thousands of positive acts. A trickle would turn to a torrent and then a flood. And if we all then made a second small change? We can all be the change we wish to see in the world, even in these difficult times.
What can you do to help? Here are a few tangible, easy things:
- Take the Harvard Implict Bias Test. It is free and easy to do. You might be surprised by the results. It will help you understand your own biases – an important first step.
- Take the time to mentor junior solicitors. You will find it a rewarding experience and you will positively influence someone’s career.
- If you are a client yourself, consider the requests you are making of legal service providers. Take a look at the Mindful Business Charter.
- If your organisation publishes its gender pay gap annually – read the report, attend launch events and be prepared to answer questions on it from your colleagues.
- If you are asked to take part in an all-male panel, note that you are honoured to be asked, but gracefully refuse. And tell the organiser why.
- If you are involved in childcare – and are a leader of your business – lead by example. Model the behaviour that you’d like to see. Similarly, if you are senior and work flexibly then model the positive behaviours you would like to see in others.
- Be supportive of flexible working and visibly so. Call out your colleagues who are resistant to it. The recent switch to home-working shows that many of us can work from home perfectly well, if given the support and resources to do so.
- Do not accept bullying in any way, shape or form. Speak out against bullying and harassment and support others who speak out.
Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. It isn’t women win and therefore men lose. Everyone is better off. Ultimately, equality exists for no one until it exists for everyone. We’ve made huge strides in the recent past. Let’s not allow that to slip.