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International Women's Day: Choose to Challenge

By Naeema Yaqoob Sajid

When asked to write an article to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), much to my regret it occurred to me that I really don’t know enough about it. This is a bit of a revelation and source of embarrassment to me, given the concept which it looks to promote i.e., gender equality, is no stranger to me. It’s only later in life that I have realised that, unintentionally I have fought for this all of my life. Being a second-generation immigrant Pakistani Muslim woman growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, surprisingly, this day has passed me by without much recognition in the past. With this year’s theme being ‘choose to challenge’ my first challenge is to myself which is to learn more about IWD.

So, firstly a few basics:

IWD was officially recognised by the United Nations in 1977, when the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace. However, its widely accepted that the concept itself came much earlier, most likely from the activities of female labour movements. The earliest such movement appears to have been in 1848, when Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott congregated a few hundred people at their first women’s rights convention in New York. At this they demanded civil, social, political and religious rights for women in a ‘Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’.

Since those early years, IWD has grown and now symbolises a global celebration of women’s achievements in both developed and developing countries alike. After World War II, 8th March started to be celebrated in a number of countries and has now become an internationally recognised public event and in some countries, such as Russia, an annual holiday.

So, what’s the point of IWD?

For me, and having learnt a little more about it, it’s not only a time for celebration but a time for reflection. While a recent trend has emerged to celebrate the day by sending flowers and cards, which helps promote awareness of the day itself, I’m left wondering whether it furthers the gender inequalities that IWD was built around and looked to address.

We’ve come a long way in the last 173 years, with women’s rights enshrined in our laws, public policy and workplaces, but the fight for equality isn’t yet over for we have not yet achieved equality. With women on average earning 23% less than men globally, and occupying only 24% of parliamentary seats worldwide, there is much still to do. Indeed, the last year has shown us that if ever a movement for equality needed to be reignited it is now, with all the evidence pointing towards women being disproportionately and adversely affected by the consequences of the pandemic, be that as a result of carrying the lioness’ share of responsibility for home-schooling or being more likely to be furloughed or at risk of redundancy. Recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute[i] has found that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s jobs and that women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. This is not as a result of the pandemic alone, but as a result of long existing inequalities such as women doing the majority, (approximately 75%) of unpaid-care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning.

Therefore, whilst sending flowers and cards to the amazing girls and women in our lives, we must remember to also send a few messages to challenge our decisionmakers, be they boardroom or political leaders, to eliminate bias, change workplace cultures and transform policies and thereby allow genuine gender parity to thrive, not only in Scotland and the legal sector, but all sectors, globally. Global change is what is needed and that’s the whole point of having IWD. So, what of gender equality in Scotland’s legal profession? The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time in the UK and it was a Scot, Madge Easton Anderson, who was the first woman admitted to practice as a professional lawyer in the UK. A good beginning for Scotland but what does the Scottish legal landscape look like for women in 2021? Ponder over these statistics, if you will:

  • Approximately 65% of law students in Scotland are female

  • Last year 68% of trainee solicitors were female

  • 53% of qualified solicitors holding practising certificates are female (pretty good so far but keep reading)

  • Approximately 33% of partners in law firms are female

  • Approximately 23% of Sheriffs are female

  • Approximately 27% of Senators of the College of Justice are female.

So, why are there not more women at the top?

There has been much debate about this phenomenon, often referred to as the ‘leaky pipe syndrome’ i.e., the loss of female talent, something which I feel very strongly about, for I am one of those women. For as long as I can remember, the majority of aspiring lawyers entering the profession are women, and yet that does not translate to senior roles. Recent Law Society initiated roundtable discussions have identified a number of triggers for this and in general the causes of gender inequalities in the Scottish legal profession. The roundtables focussed on 4 main causes: lack of flexible working conditions, gender bias, bullying & harassment and the gender pay gap. As a result of the roundtable discussions a number of initiatives have been introduced. The most recent of which, and for me the most interesting, is the ‘Women Access Network’. This is a scheme designed to connect senior women in the legal profession with junior female solicitors and trainees looking to advance their careers. It forms part of the Law Society’s gender equality action plan and is in direct response to concerns raised in the roundtables; the lack of access to senior female leaders for women seeking advice in the earlier stages of their legal careers. Having experienced a lack of such a network in my own career, I’m not only interested in but would like to contribute to this initiative, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one. I would like to think that in the near future such initiatives will become widespread with organisations adopting them into their mainstream business plans and workplace policies, and as a result of which find a cure for the ‘leaky pipe syndrome’. I should point out that gender equality is possible, after all 50% of our Sheriff Principals are female. Change is possible, it is happening, but we all need to help to speed it up.

On a personal note, what further changes would I like to see for the future? According to the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report of 2020’, none of us will see gender parity within our lifetimes nor possibly during the lifetime of our children. Indeed, it is estimated that gender parity will take another 99 years. What a sobering thought! It’s findings such as these I’d like to see change. While I accept change takes time, from a business and moral perspective can we afford to wait another 99 years? Therefore, and in continuing with this year’s theme, ‘choose to challenge’, I’d encourage everyone to take a little time to set themselves a challenge. For me it’s the following promise to my granddaughter, Amal Nura (the Arabic meaning of which, fittingly, is hope and eternal light):

‘Amal, I promise to challenge inequalities by speaking up against gender bias in education and supporting young girls with their learning, no matter where they may be or what path they choose to take’.

Why is this important to me? Because in this day and age we still have prejudice and gender bias in our homes, schools, colleges, and universities. We still have communities that believe educating boys over girls is acceptable. While that exists, we will struggle to achieve global gender parity. In the words of Nelson Mandela, Education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world”. Raise your hands if you agree.

Article first published on Law Society of Scotland Website on 8th March 2021



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