Balfour+Manson LLP: BIS have launched an inquiry into “Women in the Workplace” - Is there gender equality in your workplace? 10/26/2012

I am one of eleven Associates at Balfour+Manson LLP and it occurs to me that my fellow Associates and I all have at least one thing in common – no lawyer jokes please! Interestingly, we are all female. 

This occurred to me when reading the news about the government’s latest inquiry into gender equality in the workplace. In contemplating my own workplace I stumbled across a little known fact among employees at Balfour+Manson LLP. It transpires that one of Scotland’s first female law graduates, Eveline MacLaren who graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1909, had close connections with Balfour+Manson LLP. Her father owned a firm of solicitors which operated from 62 Frederick Street whilst Balfour+Manson had been located at number 58 since 1888. There were interconnecting passageways between the two firms and Mr MacLaren’s firm was eventually absorbed by Balfour+Manson in 1969.

Balfour+Manson LLP still operate from the premises in Frederick Street and it appears that the legacy of Scotland’s first female law graduate lives on in the building where her father worked. In fact, the legacy extends to our Aberdeen office too. I have been working from the Aberdeen office once a week since early June. It now occurs to me that all the employees there are women. In fact, upon further examination I am proud to say that of all the legally qualified staff at Balfour+Manson LLP, sixty percent of us are female. This may or may not be representative of law firms across Scotland, but purely based on my own experiences from law student to solicitor; I can confidently say my peers are as likely to be women as they are to be male. The proportion of females to males does decrease at Partnership level, but that does not detract from the fact that a significant proportion of the Partners at Balfour+Manson LLP are women; thirty percent!

Looking to the working world at large, although discrimination between the sexes is much less common than it once was, there are still fewer females than males in senior roles and a gender pay gap remains. Many factors are said to contribute to gender inequality including the impact of motherhood on women’s careers; a lack of quality part-time work and the lack of women already occupying senior roles.

When the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, sex discrimination was rife. Nowadays, equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation are less about addressing overt discrimination and more about effecting societal change. For example, since the mid 1980’s, thousands of women have brought equal pay claims to address historical labelling of their work as “women’s work” and to challenge the disparity in pay between “women’s work” and traditional (albeit comparable) male roles. Aside from equal pay claims, indirect sex discrimination claims and claims under the Part Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 aim to protect those with childcare responsibilities who may be disadvantaged at work.

In the last fifteen/twenty years, there has been an explosion of family friendly legislation including the introduction of paternity leave, the right to request flexible working and, more recently, the introduction of additional paternity leave. Now the government is proposing the introduction of a new system of shared flexible parental leave which may come into force around April 2015 subject to affordability. Little by little, obstacles are being removed and the way is being paved for equality of opportunity for both sexes. 

Inequalities remain, but there does seem to be momentum to effect change. Only last week, the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee announced a new inquiry into women in the workplace. The Committee will consider whether current legislation goes far enough to tackle gender inequalities such as the gender pay gap between men and women. They also intend to look at the impact of the current economic crisis on female employment and wage levels; how to tackle gender stereotyping in particular occupations (e.g. in engineering, banking, construction, and the beauty industry) and what more should be done to promote part-time work at all levels of the workplace. Submissions are invited by 05 October 2012.

The BIS inquiry will also cover the highly topical question of why there are still so few women in senior positions on corporate boards. You may be aware that back in March 2012, the European Commission launched a consultation about gender imbalance on corporate boards. Now the EU Justice Commissioner is proposing legislation to introduce mandatory quotas for women on the boards of large companies in the EU. The UK has launched a campaign to gather support among member states to block this proposal, arguing that effective steps are being and can be taken to address gender imbalances on a voluntary basis.

In my relatively short stint as an employment lawyer I have encountered examples of gender inequality and sex discrimination in Scotland. In my line of work I am hardly exposed to a representative sample of society, given that I am often sandwiched between feuding parties. That said whilst I believe equal opportunities legislation is absolutely going in the right direction, it may not be going fast enough. I fear that when the purse strings are tight, championing equality may slip down the agenda and I hope that the political will to deliver equality will survive in the current economic climate.

As far as lawyers in Scotland are concerned, my personal experience suggests that women are increasingly well represented within the legal community. I work exclusively in employment law so my experiences are probably influenced by trends in that field. The current Employment Appeal Tribunal Judge in Scotland is female and although I have yet to appear before Lady Smith, I have appeared in tribunal before as many female as male Employment Judges in my career to date. There may be some way to go in terms of judicial appointments in Scotland generally, and it will be some time before there are equal numbers of men and woman Partners in law firms across the board. However, given the proportion of females among young lawyers in Scotland today, gender equality in the legal sector is surely only a matter of time. 


The information and views set out in this article are those of the Johanna Millar and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Balfour+Manson LLP.