Gender balance: a remarkable turnaround

As part of our Platinum Anniversary blog series, Andrew C Ferguson, a solicitor at Fife Council, discusses how the gender balance of the profession has changed since he became a solicitor over 30 years ago.

To the Assembly Rooms, an historic pile on Edinburgh’s George Street, for the Law Society of Scotland Annual Dinner in March. If it sounds like I do this kind of thing all the time, don’t be fooled: in the 32 years since I was admitted (a verb which almost seems to beg for the adverb grudgingly) to the Roll of Scottish Solicitors, this is my first time!

I’m in distinguished company at the event: from Lady Hale, the top judge in the whole of the UK, Senators of the College of Justice, Government Ministers and celebrity lawyers like Aamer Anwar, down to just plain senior partners of the biggest firms and sector leaders in their field.

A good profession

But this post isn’t all about me, or my place in the glittering firmament of the profession that’s been my working life all that time. Except to say, despite a lifetime of wanting to be something cooler, like, the next Robert Louis Hemingway or Bruce Dylansteen, in the past few years I’ve come to appreciate being a Scots lawyer, at least as a day job. It’s a good profession, full of sound, sensible types who quietly underpin some of the biggest things that happen in our society, without ever getting the credit for any of it (but generally getting the blame when it all goes a bit Pete Tong).

The event took place on International Women’s Day, and so the focus was, rightly, on the distaff side of the profession. The Law Society’s President, Alison Atack, mentioned one stat which stuck in my mind: in 1988, when I had been a fully-fledged lawyer for a year, out of 8,023 solicitors in Scotland, 26% were female. Last year, that number had risen to 11,699, and the percentage of female solicitors had also risen, to 53%.

A balancing act

That’s a remarkable turnaround. More so when you consider this: I was at university from 1980 till 1985, and, so far as I can remember, the gender balance in the class was roughly 50/50. However, I was speaking to a colleague at another legal event recently who had started her studies in 1975, and her recollection was that, at that time, only a third of the students were female.

She, like me, went to Edinburgh University, by the way, and her memory of the bulk of those male contemporaries was that they came from Edinburgh, lived at home, and expected their Mum to wash their socks. It’s probably also fair to say that many of them had attended Edinburgh’s merchant schools such as Heriot’s and Stewart’s Melville.

Whether or not there was also a move in the socio-economic backgrounds of students at that time, the changing gender proportions tend to indicate that my generation of female lawyers were the first to start the ball rolling towards equality of numbers. That’s not the whole story, of course: there are still gaps in terms of pay, and senior positions in firms, between men and women.

Still. 53%.

Does it matter that women now outnumber men in the profession, 53/47%? Is that difference statistically significant, or does it reflect a greater number of female lawyers working part time, balancing primary carer duties with their professional responsibilities? I suspect so. But it’s still a remarkable turnaround in my lifetime of lawyering.

Academic achievement                                                                                                                  

If I am permitted to enter one plea for my gender, guilty as it may be of many things, it would be this. Of all the parents of my age that I know, it’s the ones with boys that seemed to have the worries about academic achievement. The ones with girls almost never had to encourage their daughters to work hard, study long, and aim for those A grades.

The consequence is that the law classes – and the other ‘hard’ subjects like medicine – are filling up with more females than males. On the basis that neither gender has the monopoly on brains, perhaps the time is coming when it’s the boys that need a helping hand at a certain point in the maturing process.

And speaking of maturing, it was good to catch up with two of my best buddies at the Law Society dinner. Back in the ‘90s, we all lawyered in one place: and in amongst all the mischief we got up to, there was some pretty damn fine lawyering went on, if I may say so.

But there was a lot of mischief!

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Platinum blog series

Kenneth Pritchard OBE played a key role in the Society’s contribution to the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 during his 21 years as the Secretary of the Law Society of Scotland. Mr Pritchard became an honorary member of the Law Society of Scotland in 1997.