Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, addresses the rarely addressed question of gender equality in the legal profession for men.

Anyone who has ever had an online argument about gender rights knows that, at some point, a man will ask: ‘’but what about the men?’’.  So common is this trope that memes abound and the question itself is mocked. But, you know, when it comes to access to the profession – what about the men?

It was inevitable when we announced that the profession was now majority female that some would ask ‘what are you doing for gender equality for men?’.  Sometimes these questions were said with tongues firmly in cheeks, sometimes the question was asked more seriously.

The sheer dominance of females at the junior end of the profession is astonishing. Women outnumber men two to one on the LLB, diploma, and traineeship and have done for over two decades. Women have outnumbered men at point of admission for over 20 years in a row. If you look at the solicitor profession under the age of 45, you see that six out of every 10 solicitors are female – and that percentage is going to rise substantially and quickly.

Under the radar

Until relatively recently no one really noticed this. Most who did thought it an odd quirk of history or filed it under ‘not my problem’.

If anyone probed a little further they were ignored or fobbed off.  You know what I mean. Comments like ‘’I bet they weren’t worrying about gender when men outnumbered women’.  Or, perhaps, there is an accusation of implicit sexism: ‘As soon as women are outnumbering men then all of a sudden gender equality is an issue!’. The thing is women have been outnumbering men at admission for nearly quarter of a century and that trend is deepening.

So, if now is too soon to be pondering this matter, when does it become important? 30 years of women outnumbering men at admission? 40? 50? Of course, it’s highly likely that one gender will form a majority of a given cohort. But when the percentages are between 60% and 70% consistently, then it seems reasonable to at least discuss it. (Last year, 64% of those admitted were female).

 If one isn’t fobbed off we usually see a classic bit of whataboutery ‘’but what about partnership? What about the gender pay pay?  What about the judges?.

Well, quite. We’ve spoken very publicly on those important matters and we’ll continue to do so. We should also take account of the numbers of women at the junior end of the profession and how that impacts the pay gap. But, as I said last time out, gender equality is an issue for everyone.  There is a difference between access to a profession and progression within it. If there are structures real or perceived that limit the potential of men and women in Scotland, then there’s a problem.

When do we say ‘enough is enough’?

It should go without saying that people – regardless of gender – should be paid the same for the same job and that there should be more female partners, judges, sheriffs, QCs and more women on the Law Society’s Councils and Committees. But at what point do we say: we need more male new lawyers?

Demanding that the gender pay gap be closed, and asking serious questions about the lack of women in senior roles in the profession (and considering what could be done to improve that situation), shouldn’t be incompatible with giving some consideration to equality of access at early stages. Figuring out solutions to the issue of many women not returning to work after a career break shouldn’t stop us worrying about why the children from the poorest communities are disproportionately less likely to go to university – and that’s particularly true of boys. None of this is either/or. None of it is mutually exclusive.

Do we try to solve this?

But can, or should, the Society do anything about the comparative lack of men entering the profession? Before we can, we need to understand why the gap exists. There are probably three main reasons: education policy across Scotland (and its effects), university admissions policies, and pupil choice.

The first two inform one another. There is a significant attainment gap, in secondary education, between boys and girls. It’s not surprising, then, that high-prestige, professional courses (such as the LLB) which typically require stronger Higher results will generally have larger cohorts of female applicants. I know one university where 35% of applications to the LLB were from men and the offer numbers were roughly the same. That suggests two things: firstly, equal treatment at admission but secondly and tellingly that boys aren’t choosing law. That might be because they don’t fancy it or it might be because they don’t think they’ll get the grades. 

Pupil choice is important. Speak to the universities and they will tell you from a young age fewer boys show an interest in law. The Society hosted over 130 young people at our Legal Studies & Careers Days last year – around a quarter of those who attended were male.

But people are starting to take notice

Needless to say, people are beginning to notice this. It’s on the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council’s agenda. They’re aware that women are under-represented in STEM subjects but are increasingly also aware that some subjects see men under-represented.

The only way to get more boys into the law is to raise awareness of careers in law and to raise aspirations for school age boys to consider law. If young people have the aspiration and ambition to study a subject, they are more likely to achieve those grades. The Society’s Street Law programme may play a part in that and we hope to expand that.  We know there’s great work going on across the sector - from the University Law Clinics, to Schools Law Web, to Lawyers in Schools and the Prime Commitment.

This isn’t easy and sometimes difficult choices will have to be made. An interesting counterpoint, though, to the idea that equality considerations aren’t mutually exclusive is that if men are still more likely to be promoted to the top jobs, it may suggest that to achieve parity at the top end of the profession, we need more women entering the profession for a good few years yet. If – and I stress if - that proves to be the case, this looks increasingly like a square that won’t turn into a circle very easily.