I graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2018, where I was involved in the Law Review and the Mooting Society. Since then I have been lucky to remain connected with the Law School, namely through work on the GOJustice initiative and RebLaw Scotland, with whom I’m currently working on a comparative gender and justice project. My perspectives as a woman and feminist are instrumental in my attitudes towards law, and I feel fortunate to have been a student at a Law School where this was fostered by encouraging staff, supportive students and diverse curriculums.
For someone, then, who spends a lot of time contemplating both gender and law, I didn’t anticipate how difficult I would find it to come up with my small contribution to this important project. I tried more times than I can count to write about some of my achievements - aiming to sound impressive but not arrogant - and then I tried to come up with heartfelt prose about how my experiences so far have had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the women around me - essentially true, but far too soppy. I’ve now realised that this exercise in trying to decide which version of myself to portray, of wanting to come across as the ‘perfect’ balance of contradicting ideas, is much more representative of my experience as a woman in law, and, more specifically, as a woman, than anything else I had attempted.
I know I’m not alone in this endeavour, and I know that these sorts of worries are shared by many women. The need to constantly edit and adjust oneself can be exhausting. In fact, an anxiety disorder was a struggle for me during my time at university and again, I know that this is far from unusual. It’s widely reported that ‘millenials’ and ‘Generation Y’ are in the grips of an anxiety epidemic, which of course affects all sorts of people but certainly seems to be a particular problem for young women. From my own perspective, the four years spent at university was a time that was ripe with worry and stress for young women I knew, despite also being full of so many positive and rewarding experiences. At least some of this, I think, stems from concerns about keeping up an unachievable facade of perfection. After all, isn’t university supposed to be the most fun, care-free time of your life?
The legal profession itself is said to be currently struggling with a culture of poor mental health, with factors such as poor work-life balance, hyper-competitivity and stigma fostering a culture of stress and anxiety. The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales published research earlier this year that found that almost half of respondents had struggled with mental ill-health in the last month, with only 19% having reported this to a manager. Although there is undoubtedly a growing awareness, I am hopeful that in the future the profession will catch up to the needs of its members and that we’ll start to see real change in approaches towards these incredibly common issues. Although individuals becoming more informed is one part of the puzzle, more extensive proactive, structural change at the level of professional bodies and employers is crucial.
In terms of my own experiences as a woman in law, I’ve consistently drawn on the brilliance and generosity of the women around me, both personally and professionally speaking. Although of course I can see the importance of individual women role models at the high ranks of the profession (and am lucky to be entering it at a time where I can take that more and more for granted), my instinct when thinking about women in law whom I admire is to think of the women closest to me. I was lucky enough to meet my best friends while studying at Glasgow, whose patience, intelligence, resilience and humour are the best inspiration I could ask for. Professionally, I’ve met women who started as managers or teachers and, fortunately for me, have become both mentors and friends. Closer to home, if I go on to achieve even a fraction of what my wonderful mum (who works in law) has, I’ll be over the moon.
I am encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive experiences of studying and working in law expressed both by women I know and the other women featured in this project. Personally, although I am still disheartened by the everyday, ‘casual’ and yet deeply affecting sexism myself and others experience, I am grateful for the lack of structural barriers I’ve faced so far in my studies and career. However, I think it’s crucial to remember that this is far from the case for all women, and that we all have a responsibility to keep working on building a profession that encourages and fosters the ambitions of those from all walks of life. For example, research from the Law Society of Scotland shows that 21% of the profession in this jurisdiction were privately educated, compared to 4% of the population, and a recent study in the US demonstrated that in a legal environment, black women were 50% more likely to be mistakenly identified as junior staff members than white men. The profession owes it to the people it serves to strive towards a more representative and substantive idea of equality within its own ranks.
As for me, I am currently working and travelling in New Zealand which has offered some welcome sunshine and adventure, as well as the opportunity to think about the next steps in my career. I feel proud to come from a jurisdiction - and a university - where creative, collaborative and progressive lawyering is happening every day, with women very much at the forefront. I am excited to play my small part in the future.