The Business of Equality in the Solicitors' Profession
Modern Law Review 63:442-456
Posted: 18 Jan 2013
Date Written: 2000
In Gender, Choice and Commitment, Hilary Sommerlad and Peter Sanderson argue that ‘gender remains a principal determinant in the career trajectories of women solicitors’ (p 4). Whilst to many this would appear to be obvious, the tragedy is that this is little recognised within the profession itself. Indeed, there would appear to be a silent conspiracy not to mention gender, let alone feminism, in any debates within the profession concerning women, paradoxical though this may seem. The result is a deeply unsatisfactory situation in which the gendered obstacles in the way of women’s full and equal participation in the profession remain ‘remarkably durable’ (p 13), but the strategies being adopted by campaigners seeking to improve women’s status overlook the significance of gender, focusing instead on what has been termed the ‘business case’ for sex equality. The ‘business case’ attempts to convince employers that the adoption of equal opportunity measures will bring economic and efficiency gains to their businesses, thereby encouraging them to adopt such practices. As argued by Opportunity 2000, an organisation established in the UK to promote the ‘business’ case for equality, this is not a strategy ‘rooted in a moral or social imperative’, but in ‘hard commercial facts’.
In the light of Sommerlad and Sanderson’s study, I argue that the ‘business case’ strategy, as a means by which to improve the status of women solicitors, is wholly misconceived. It is based on erroneous assumptions about the reasons for women’s marginalised status and therefore can have only limited effect in eliminating discrimination. Furthermore, by privileging economic considerations, the business case may open the way for the removal of existing hard won gains. In order to develop this argument, the first part of this article will examine Sommerlad and Sanderson’s analysis of the status of women solicitors. The second and third parts go on to outline and examine the ‘business case’ strategy and assess whether, in the light of the arguments made by Sommerlad and Sanderson, it has the potential to bring about a situation in which women are equal participants in the solicitors’ profession. The final section will conclude by suggesting that those seeking change within the solicitors’ profession must re-focus their attention on gender and its role in the marginalisation of women solicitors.
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