Waiting another 50 years for equality is not the answer

It is unacceptable that child-rearing has been cited as one reason for the divergence in male and female pay, writes Adele Edwin-Lamerton.

The age-old row of sexism and equality again reared its head last month. We witnessed the government consult on the gender pay gap - which has seen some female solicitors in Scotland work for free since 31 July - the now infamous Proudman versus Carter-Silk row, and Lord Sumption’s comments on the diversity and composition of the judiciary.

Sumption recently gave an interview to the Evening Standard in which he commented that rushing to achieve equal representation for women in the judiciary could inflict ‘appalling consequences’ on the quality of British justice, that it could take as long as 50 years to achieve equal representation, and that the lack of female judges was mainly the result of a lifestyle choice.

In his lecture of November 2012, Home Truths about Judicial Diversity, Lord Sumption analysed some of the reasons for the ‘relatively slow progress towards a more diverse judicial bench’. In addition to calling for more flexible job descriptions for judges, the lecture argued that women’s ability to go out and succeed in their legal careers depended to some extent on their having a partner willing to share household and childcare responsibilities. That, he argued, has contributed to the available pool for selection being vastly made up of white males.

Taking time off work to have and raise children has been cited as one reason for the divergence in male and female pay, which is unacceptable. Indeed, the notion that only full-time contributions are recognised when it comes to measuring achievement could be viewed as sexist. If men were to stay at home and raise the children, then the problem would hold up a mirror to itself and the inequality would be the same. What is needed is a change in attitudes to flexible working.

The reaction to Sumption’s comments has been brought about by the implicit assertion that years of discrimination are somehow acceptable and that we must live with the results. Using the term ‘lifestyle choice’ to describe why some women have not made it to the judiciary was always going to be controversial, and wrong.

For equality to work - for a meritocracy to work - it has to start right at the beginning, preferably with the first university or school, and with the first job at the latest.

Quotas have their supporters and detractors. Supporters may point out that the fast-tracking of capable candidates could provide at least a partial solution. However, picking fairly from the available talent pool may not address the problem, because many of those in the pool have experienced numerous barriers in reaching where they are now.

For women, changes such as equal pay audits, shared parental leave, and the Equality Act are clearing the way for quick action. Additionally, the Davies Review concludes that we must engage with FTSE companies and explain to them the business benefits of recruiting women to their boards. What is clear is that waiting patiently for another 50 years is not the answer.

Adele Edwin-Lamerton is a solicitor at JFH Law LLP and a member of the JLD executive committee.

This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 13 October 2015, and is reproduced by kind permission.