Professor Gillian Black, Chair of Scots Private Law at the University of Edinburgh Law School and Commissioner at the Scottish Law Commission, examines why ensuring women enter the profession has not been enough to create real change and lays down a challenge to male colleagues and friends.

International Women’s Day is one of many days of observance recognised by the UN. Some get more attention than others – I fear that International Asteroid Day is largely overlooked. But the UN itself notes that International Women’s Day is one of its most popular days, along with the International Days of Human Rights and Peace, and the World Day of Water.

There is no doubt in my mind that International Women’s Day is as necessary as ever, and its high profile is fantastic. Yet, the lack of progress is frustrating.

This is especially the case in 2021, when the disastrous impact of the pandemic and lockdown on women’s employment and lives is already well-reported. The UN has reported that the adverse economic effect of the pandemic is disproportionately felt by women, while a survey by children’s charity Theirworld shows that girls in the UK are doing more housework than boys – and less schoolwork. Likewise, mothers are doing more home-schooling than fathers.

Much of this inequality was encapsulated in the highly-criticised-but-depressingly-all-too-true Government ad to Stay Home, from January this year:

Note that the only male figures are lounging on the sofa…

While the pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated inequality in all aspects of life for women, they haven’t created it. The roots can be found in the existing inequality across a society that has, historically, placed power in the hands of men. Women were already on the back foot, despite a generation of significant progress and commitment to change.

For me and my generation, unlike my mother and her generation, there was never any question that we would go into work and, if we wished to, stay there, even after children.

(And for my gran, an early-ish woman graduate of Glasgow University in the 1920s with an Honours degree in English Language, her career came to a halt as soon as she married, never mind started a family, thanks to the marriage bar.)

Despite this shift in employment trends, inequalities remain pervasive, as evidenced by the gender pay gap, the rate of women who work part-time in roles for which they are over-qualified and underpaid, and the fact that more women undertake unpaid care, and for more hours, than men.

Yet, this is what puzzles me. It seems that ensuring women enter a profession is not enough to achieve real change. Just turning up to work is insufficient.

To focus on the legal profession, since that’s the one we’re in: in Scotland, 53% of solicitors are women; 33% of partners are women. One argument that is often made is that it will take time for things to change, but that they are bound to, because women now make up more than 50% of graduates.

The trouble with this is that it’s an argument I made 20 years ago.

I suspect it’s an argument that’s been confidently, and complacently, made since the 1980s. But by the turn of the century at least, 70% of my classmates on the LLB degree at Glasgow were women. Yet 20 years later, we are not 70% of the profession, let alone 70% of partners. Where have we all gone?

I’m just one example: after qualifying as a solicitor, I spent a year in practice and then moved to academia. Gender equality is a problem there too and, in the same way that numbers are more evenly balanced across the legal profession as a whole, the picture changes in promoted posts.

Rather curiously – perhaps it’s a law thing – the make-up of professors in Edinburgh Law School exactly matches that of partners in law firms: the 11 female professors in the Law School comprise 33% of the total number.

So, women start out in high numbers, but that representation falls away as women progress through their careers. The reasons are myriad and will vary from woman to woman, but there are some constants: inflexible working patterns, differential levels of maternity and paternity leave, lack of affordable childcare, unconscious bias, and outright discrimination.

This loss of talent and training is undesirable for many reasons, but the damage is further compounded by the fact that it typically falls to women to take the lead in redressing the inequality.

Whilst it is essential to centre women’s voices, tackling under-representation and inequality adds further to women’s workload, often in invisible or unvalued ways.

Thus, women who are still clinging on at the higher levels of the profession – the 33% who are partners, for example – will end up with more than their fair share of additional work.

What happens when you (rightly) need to ensure your interview panel is gender balanced? Your diversity committee is diverse? You have equal representation at a big client event? For every seven male partners to take a spot on these panels, committees, and events, you only have three women to choose from. So women end up spending a disproportionate amount of time covering essential, but non-legal (and non-fee-earning/ client focused) work.

This is something that is exacerbated still further for women of colour or any other intersectionality, who are even more seriously under-represented – if not actually un-represented due to the systemic barriers that exist for minorities to access legal study in the first place. As a previous blog from Tatora Mukushi noted (only half-jokingly, I think) when he worked with another black colleague at the Scottish Human Rights Commission, he might have insisted on the two of them travelling in separate cars, because an accident would risk halving the number of black solicitors in the Central Belt.

So, what can be done?

The theme of this year’s IWD is “Choose to Challenge” and I would like to choose to challenge our male friends and colleagues. The inequality in retention and progression isn’t just an issue for women to solve: it is everyone’s issue.

What can you do to help reverse these trends? Consider whether this firm policy/ pay and bonus scheme/ lack of promotion opportunity/ level of maternity leave are making it harder for your female colleagues to prosper and progress compared with their male counterparts. If so, how are you using your voice and position to advocate for change?

Rather than relying on women to speak up and challenge aspects of the profession that work against them, male allies who also choose to challenge inequality could make a significant difference – not just on International Women’s Day, but every day.