Women solicitors in Northern Ireland are finally taking steps to address their status – or lack of it – in the profession. With four of the 10 largest firms having no women partners and the others having only a few, action is long overdue. Margaret Magennis says she decided to set up the Association of Women Solicitors last October after conversations with some of her female colleagues in the Queen's University law class of 1983.
Much anecdotal evidence was coming through that not only were women not making partnership, they were also being paid much less than their male counterparts.
However, the Law Society of Northern Ireland had no statistics on the issue. In fact Magennis was told that no one had ever asked for a breakdown of figures on the number of men and women in the profession.
She looked at her class and found that in 1995, the class of 1983 had 24 women and 23 men with practising certificates. However, of the 24 women, four were partners in their firms, 10 were assistants and the other 10 worked in the public sector. Of the 23 men, 19 were partners, one was an assistant solicitor and three worked in the public sector.
Further, the age-old argument that women removed themselves from the job market when they had a family by taking career breaks was not the experience of those in the class of 1983. Magennis discovered that she was the only job-share and that none of the other women had flexible working hours or had taken career breaks despite having families.
The association now has 171 members: she would like more. “We are working very hard to get our numbers up so that we're a representative voice.” There are around 500 female solicitors in Northern Ireland.
A major problem is the lack of statistical data on the subject and the group is currently working on putting such research together. While there was recognition in England that discrimination did exist against women solicitors and much research on the subject, in Northern Ireland there was only anecdotal evidence.
“It is much worse here because everything is cloak and dagger,” says Magennis. People are afraid to say anything which might ripple the waters.”
Another problem is the fear associated with belonging to a group tackling the problem of discrimination. Magennis says that she has been accused of creating “divisiveness” in the profession by setting up such a group.
“People are afraid to tackle it as an issue and there is a fear that people won't employ female solicitors,” she explains.
The fact that many members requested that information be sent to their home addresses is indicative of their fear of being marked out as a troublemaker.
“It is such a small profession and it's so hard to get a job that people feel they have to put up with a lot to keep their job,” says Magennis.
However, she adds that if women make it through the profession, they should help others. “I'm hoping that if we get a body going a couple of people can get progress for everyone.”
The Equal Opportunities Commission has taken a keen interest in the group's activities. And well it might: “It's bad if you are coming into a profession that deals with equality to find that it may be the worst offender,” she says.
“It's a door that's beginning to creak open. I'm not prepared to let it slam shut.”