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Can you Have it All?

Welcome to Just Employment’s first blog! We aim to make these blogs topical, entertaining and controversial, so do chip in with your views and news.

Did you see the BBC 1 drama ‘Silk’ on Tuesday night? If so, you will have the impression that barristers ambitious to become ‘Queen’s Counsel’ (QCs) are incredibly competitive and ruthless, working all hours, under constant pressure to perform to impress judges, colleagues, instructing solicitors and clients. Leaving aside whether that representation is entirely accurate, there is no doubt that successful barristers work very long hours in a highly competitive forum, winning or losing.

My experience as an advocate confirms that long hours are essential. For a 5-day employment tribunal, my hours each tribunal day ranged from 9.9 to 13.4 hours, plus 8.2 hours on Sunday. On another case I asked my barrister opponent whether he had been working to nearly midnight, as I had. He replied that he had been up to 1.30 am.

Does this explain why there are so few women judges? Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, was asked this in a recent BBC documentary. He said that, in an ideal world, half the Supreme Court judges, and there are currently eleven, would be women. In fact, there is only one woman, Lady Hale. He explained that the reason is that Supreme Court justices are drawn from the higher judiciary, and there are not many women senior judges. This, he said, is because the law is very competitive, and many women ‘drop out’ early on.

To attain a senior role on merit, in any walk of life, requires not just ambition, but many years of consistent effort, putting work first. ‘Success’ always implies sacrifice. Karen Brady, of Apprentice fame, went back to work immediately after having her first baby. Michael Edwardes, boss of British Leyland, cancelled Christmas one year to take his directors to Japan to do a deal on Christmas Day. Sir William Armstrong, as Head of the Civil Service, liked to promote people who worried about the job at home.

Such work ethic is not wholly admirable. There is more to life than work. The heavy responsibilities of seniority are not for everyone. Why do people do it? There is the lure, the challenge of getting to the top: status, money and power. Sir Robert Horton decided at university that he wanted to become chairman of BP or prime minister. He got there.

But it is not just the satisfaction of winning the race. It’s the motivation that comes from enjoying the work. David Maister, the consultant to professional firms, talks of ‘dynamos, cruisers and losers’, with the ‘dynamos’ loving the work and constantly learning. He suggests that people who love their work will be better at it and more successful. Many older people choose to work on rather than to retire, simply because work is more enjoyable than the golf course. Most women now go to back work after having children, not just because ‘I need the money’, but because work can be more satisfying (and has higher status in our society) than running around after children.

Dedication to work has its risks. As Malcolm Muggeridge said ‘be careful about what you want, because you will get it and find that it’s not what you want after all’. A woman City solicitor who slaved for years to become a partner at last achieved her ambition, but burst into tears at her celebratory lunch. She had achieved her ambition, but realised that the rest of her life was empty. A retiring partner at Farrer & Co, the Queen’s solicitors, told me that, looking back, he wished he’d spent more time with his children, whilst they were young.

Only 10% of High Court judges women; only 20% of partners in the top 100 UK law firms women; and only 7% of directors of FTSE 250 companies women? Has something gone wrong?

When I worked for an education authority with grammar schools, boys were given a lower pass mark than girls, to equalise admission numbers. Girls make up 54% of university graduates. Women under 30 earn more than men. Women have at least as much potential as men to do top jobs. But do they want them?

A study by the Institute of Management and Leadership found that women are less ambitious than men; and are more likely to define their success in terms of raising a family than work achievement. As Catherine Hakim of the LSE argues in her new book, ‘Erotic Capital’, men and women tend to have different life-goals. Most women are not careerist. Many young women who have the ability to get to the top choose, after starting a family, that the long hours and demands that come at the highest level are not worth it. Many more women than men choose not to climb the greasy pole.

That is why the supply pipeline of women ready for top jobs is inadequate to provide an equal number of women judges or directors. Only 11 women, compared to 118 men, applied for jobs as High Court judges.

That is why quotas will fail, as they failed in Norway, if appointments are to be made on merit, not on gender. Quotas are logically inconsistent with appointment on merit, as much in director jobs as in university admissions. There is a risk that quotas could push employers not just into bad, politically correct, appointments but into discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 from April allows ‘positive discrimination’ only where there are two candidates of equal merit (if that ever happens!). Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report today is right to call for voluntary measures to boost the number of women directors, but a balance must be struck in a market where the number of eligible applicants is not equal.

The French psychiatrist, Francois Lelord, in his book, ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’, found that western women general ly are less content today than they were in the 1960s, whilst men are significantly happier. Although the reasons for this go way beyond the workplace, all of us, men and women, have to make trade-offs. It’s just that society’s expectations make that much easier for men than mothers.

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