Jane Mair

A female graduate and her adult self sitting in a garden


Reflecting on my “life in law” and how I got to where I am now, I can pinpoint the time and place where it all began - Edinburgh, 1984, about quarter to 6 on a Saturday afternoon. The shop assistants in the Princes Street branch of Austin Reed were tidying the rails and cashing up the tills, no doubt buoyed at the end of a long hard day by the anticipation of a late sale. My weary but always supportive parents, sensing a crisis, had come through from Glasgow and were slumped on a conveniently placed sofa.  I was in the last chance changing room in the umpteenth interview suit of the afternoon. When my mum tentatively popped her head round the door to ask, ‘any good?’ I burst into tears.

The tears were not really about the suit, albeit I had just noticed that this particular model was labelled ”Made in South Africa”, which in those days of apartheid may have been the final straw. They were an outburst of relief at a difficult decision, finally made.  I did not want a job where there was an expectation of dress, particularly not when that expectation was so clearly a feminised version of the male norm. The diploma, the traineeship and the look of the corporate lady lawyer, which that interview suit represented, were not for me. I chose instead the academic route, an LLM, a PhD and a lectureship at the School of Law, University of Glasgow.  I should add that by that time I had also positively decided that it was the research, rather than the practice, that I enjoyed.

Focusing on the clothes might seem superficial and, yes, those shop assistants on that Saturday afternoon would have been perfectly entitled to mutter ‘snowflake’ as I passed, but dress and the division between “work” and “life” really mattered to me. And decades later they still do. I wanted to work in an environment where I could be myself, where there were no gendered expectations of structure or style. Although I had not read it at the time, what I was railing against on that Saturday in 1984 were the dichotomies and dualisms described by Fran Olsen in a classic article of feminist legal scholarship from 1983’s Harvard Law Review:

“The dichotomization of market and family pervades our thinking, our language, and our culture. It limits and impoverishes the ways we experience our affective and productive lives, the possibilities we can imagine for restructuring our shared existence, and the manner in which we attempt change.”

Put simply, Olsen’s argument goes something like this: the market and the family have been constructed as separate spheres; the market is associated with men and male qualities, the family with women and female qualities; the former is highly valued and the latter much less so. We can shape the market to make it more like the family and vice versa. We can encourage men to be more engaged with family and we can encourage more women into the market. We can reform each distinct sphere to make it more equal and more accommodating of the other but, for so long as the spheres remain separate and distinct, there will always be an “other”. The only way to achieve real equality, Olsen argues, is to “transcend the dichotomies”, to break down the distinction between the separate spheres; to change the system.

In the 1980s, I saw those dichotomies as very clearly present in the corporate legal world but I did not see them in universities. When I became a lecturer in 1989, it seemed to me that academia held Olsen’s promise of transcending the divisions. Being an academic was not so much a job, it was a way of life. If I worked in the evenings and weekends, it was because the boundaries between reading for work and reading for pleasure were fluid. Universities were not “the market” and my kitchen was often my office. That I would feel defined or constrained by my gender, within that community of scholars, never crossed my mind. No suits required.

Thirty years later, do I still feel the same?

I love what I do and I have worked with the most brilliant colleagues and students, men and women. That is beyond doubt. The flexibility of academic working is an undeniable benefit in managing day to day childcare and family life. On an individual level, the instances of gendered behaviour have been few and the wonderful women I have worked with and become friends with are a central part of my life. In those relationships, both at once personal and professional, “the productive and affective” of which Olsen writes are combined.  But three decades after I saw the promise of real equality in Higher Education, has it been delivered? My assessment sadly is no and, in some ways I fear, the divisions have become more entrenched.

What has changed – beyond perhaps my youthful optimism? In the 1980s, when my academic life began, the “market” was less evident in universities and I did not have “a family”.  As many women have already written, things change with care and with children.  Universities, however, have also changed and the models and metrics of the market have become commonplace. Progress is linear and time-bound. Doctoral students are driven by completion rates and early career researchers expected to move steadily up the ladder at a consistent rate, despite the fact that those early academic years coincide with the period in which women are statistically most likely to give birth and work part time. Accommodations are made, and many women succeed, but they do so despite the male and market-driven norm. While suits are still not required on campus, the behaviours rewarded are predominantly commercial and corporate. Promotion demands “professionalism” and the language of leadership. In Olsen’s divided world, these are male words, associated with the market and, by definition, more highly valued. Care, kindness and support remain female and family-centred. While women are successfully mentored to represent themselves in male/market terms, there is no underlying shift.

For so long as we remain constrained by these divisions, for so long as we value the market and its maleness over the feminine family, for so long as metaphorical suits remain the workplace norm, our lives and our working environments remain impoverished.  How much more exciting and creative it would be if we could begin to construct a way of working built upon the inspiration of childcare and the interruptions of parenthood rather than shored up around them.

Perhaps a pandemic, which has seen us all working from home, and where the ultimate professional is the one who can deliver a lecture while simultaneously soothing a fractious baby, restraining the dog and answering the doorbell, will finally help us to shift what we value in work and family. Perhaps when we return to our offices, slippers will be worn.