Where are all the women?

Today, Legal Cheek posted an article about the lack of women in top position in law.

The automatic assumption that there are no women in top jobs because of entrenched sexism in the legal sector worries me. There might be entrenched sexism. I don’t know. But, as far as I can see, neither does anybody else. Because we just don’t have enough information. A lack of women at the top might be due to entrenched sexism in the legal sector, or it might be due to something else.

The lingering problem we have, when discussing gender stuff, is the tacit assumption that some roles are intrinsically more valuable than others. For instance, being a partner in a law firm is intrinsically better than being an associate. Or spending time giving lectures on conferences is intrinsically better than doing whatever it is you would have been doing had you not been there. Consequently, if there are a lot more men than women doing these intrinsically better things, it must be because women are being kept out of the good stuff.

Nobody seems to be thinking that the aim of equality is to give equality of opportunity, and let the chips fall where they may. If women don’t want to be partners and directors, and to give talks at conferences, why should they do it?

And there, we come to the second assumption that gets made: that the ‘external’ pattern of behaviour (that’s not a technical term, by the way), which manifests in getting high-status, high-pay jobs, and giving talks at conferences, is intrinsically better than an ‘internal’ pattern of behaviour that concentrates on less flashy roles, like bringing up children, or making sure that the dust bunnies under the bed don’t grow into dust crocodiles and start eating the smaller members of the family.

This means that women who choose roles other than the high-flying, high-paid, high-status ones are pitied (either as victims of others, or victims of their own lack of self-worth) or derided. On the other side, what about the men who’d quite like to opt out of the rat race too? Women, at least, have the get-out of ‘housewife’ and ‘stay-at-home mother’ being accepted (though increasingly unacceptable) choices for a woman. ‘Househusband’ and ‘stay-at-home-husband’ much less so. We talk of the top roles all being taken by men, but how many of those men would actually have quite liked to have settled for a lesser role that was less stressful? It’s more socially acceptable for a woman to go part time, or not to want promotion – people assume it’s “because of the children”. In a man, the assumption is that he’s lazy, unambitious dead wood who’s best got rid of in the next restructuring.

What about a middle way, that embraces the ‘external’ but only so far. After all, if you’re working 90 hours a week and earning £500,000 a year, when do have time to enjoy yourself? You might be rolling in money, but you don’t have time to roll down hills. Money and status are all very well, but what will make you happy?

I am female, and I’m currently about to embark on a career in law – I’m a second careerist. I’m abandoning a reasonably well-paid career to take a significant pay cut, just so I can work in law. Law, I find, is just about the most fun thing you can do in an office with all your clothes on and not get arrested (OK, the not getting arrested part is negotiable). But even so, my dreams do not include being a partner in some big law firm. Money, for me, is a means to an end. It is of value only to the extent that I can use it to buy things that I want. But the things I most want (beyond food and a roof over my head), are not for sale: time to spend with my husband; time to have fun; time to study law and become the best lawyer I can be; time to write.

Status, in the narrow sense of being the big boss, is not what I want. Not that I would mind having high status, but I wouldn’t pursue it at the expense of being able to do things that I enjoy. What is life for, if it’s not to be enjoyed? We won’t get a second chance. We have only a mere eighty or so years in which to get done all the things we would like to do, before we come to an end. I am not going to waste a minute of my allocation of years in pursuing money for the sake of money, or status for the sake of status. What, after all, is the status gained by the simple holding of a position? It’s the opinion of people who know nothing about you. The good opinion of those who know you, and know your work, is of greater value, and does not depend on your job title.

Going back to the original question, “Where are the women?” the answer is unknown. Without more information, we don’t know whether the answer is “Toiling away in the back room, unappreciated and underpaid because the intrinsic sexism of the legal sector (or society) won’t let them rise to the top.” or “Sitting relaxing with the drink of their choice, congratulating themselves on having avoided getting caught up in the rat race.” Or somewhere between the two.

Before any action is taken, we need to find the answer. There is no benefit into forcing women into roles they don’t want simply because we think they ought to want them. There is also no benefit in dropping women into top roles without figuring out how to tackle the sexism (if any) preventing them rising to the top.


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