Culture of long working hours disadvantages women

ATTITUDE change needed for women to succeed, says Sheila Webster
There are still issues in the Scottish legal profession despite female graduates outnumbering men. Picture: Phil WilkinsonThere are still issues in the Scottish legal profession despite female graduates outnumbering men. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
There are still issues in the Scottish legal profession despite female graduates outnumbering men. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

It’s best to look in your own back yard before making critical comments about the state of your neighbourhood, a principle I apply when looking at the issue of getting more women into senior roles in the workplace.

Gender diversity is fortunately alive and well within our legal firm, with females accounting for five of our 11 partners and four of those five, myself included, also juggling family life. While I am pleased (and somewhat relieved) by this, we must recognise that there is a much bigger issue about how women can ascend to the top of the career ladder and overcome significant barriers which continue to hold them back in the workplace.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Office of National Statistics shows that women are significantly more likely to be in part-time employment than men, 43 per cent of UK females against 13 per cent of males according to recent figures. This pattern has remained relatively unchanged over the past ten years, according to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

While there is nothing wrong with part time working if that suits lifestyle and family commitments, for many women this option is one of necessity rather than choice as common workplace practices mean they must compromise between a career and a family. But what is the answer in getting round this barrier so we can promote true gender equality and enable women to have the same opportunities as men while ensuring families also thrive?

Like most professional women I know, I would instinctively resist the idea of legislation as a solution to this problem and would prefer that we should be judged on merits, not gender. While the Scottish Government’s move towards introducing quotas for women on public boards is an example of well-intended legislation that does have some merit, I believe there could be more effective ways of dealing with this issue.

For example, questions in senior role applications such as “do you have any caring responsibilities which might affect your ability to do the job?” appear to be stacked against females and should not be considered acceptable in modern society. Surely all applicants, not just women, should be trusted to consider this before applying for any role? While a male or female could both encounter difficulties in their work when unexpected family issues arise, I strongly suspect that few men would consider answering “yes” to that question, which should make it irrelevant.

Flexible working legislation is another attempt to help working women. However, in most professions it doesn’t change the attitude that long hours in the office are required if you want to succeed. This was underlined by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of numerous books about female leadership and empowerment in the workplace, including “Lean In”. She says wherever possible she tried to leave work at 5:30pm to enjoy dinner with her children but, to avoid this being noticed, would schedule her last meetings of the day outside the office. Despite Sandberg’s unquestionable success in her career, this culture of being ever-present in a senior role affects virtually all women who aspire to have a successful career and needs to be seriously challenged.

These same issues exist in the Scottish legal profession. Although there continue to be more women than men entering a career in law – last year approximately two-thirds of UK law graduates were female – many fall off the career ladder, usually in their 30s, to have children and care for them in their early years. This often happens while they continue in their career, but frequently in a part time or lower level role, managing it alongside these other responsibilities.

The expectation of being seen to be in the office for long hours should they wish to make it to partner level continues within many firms and effectively disenfranchises many young females in this position from reaching their potential.

While legislation may have its place, we need to re-examine the culture around working long hours as a norm to succeed and challenge existing views within society that a female being committed to her family is not compatible with a commitment at the highest level in a career.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If we fail to do so, not only will it continue to impact on women’s aspirations but it will also affect businesses and other organisations who fail to harness the full potential of the energy, ideas and resources that female leaders can offer. 
• Sheila Webster is a partner at law firm Davidson Chalmers