“GLASS CEILINGS” supposedly prevented women from flourishing in professional careers. But take three walks of life which used to be overwhelmingly male: medicine, the church and the law. All are going female. In doctoring, female medical students have outnumbered male ones since the early 1990s. In law, there are now slightly more women than men “called to the bar” (admitted to practise as trial lawyers). In the Church of England, where women have been eligible for ordination only since 1992, their numbers have been shooting up. By the last count, two years ago, they had nearly overhauled men; soon, if not already, there will be more women being ordained than men.
But the glass ceiling is giving way to glass partitions: women are not spreading out evenly across these professions. Instead, they are concentrating in the less well-paid bits of them. In medicine, for example, women tend to go into general practice (all-purpose family medicine). In London, 70% of new GPs are women.
As women take over, general practice is changing. Half of female GPs choose to work part-time, compared with one in ten of their male colleagues. New contracts have made it easier for them to work fewer hours. That’s why so many doctors are abandoning out-of-hours services. The traditional image of the GP—who like Dr Charles Bovary in Flaubert’s novel was expected to ride off on his horse at any time of the day or night to go to the aid of a patient—has changed. They also tend to be salaried employees, rather than partners—making them more mobile.
Family-friendly working conditions mean that female GPs abound, but higher-paid hospital medicine (such as surgery and gynaecology) remains largely the preserve of men. Pippa Gough, a fellow at the King’s Fund, a think-tank, recalls that when she was a nurse, “the gynaecologist used to appear wearing a bow tie and a fresh rose in his lapel.” Such old-fashioned props may have gone now, but there are still few women in areas where competition is fiercest and earnings highest. Helen Fernandes, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, reckons that many women are put off surgery by the expectation that they have to be constantly available for work. “You can’t leave in the middle of an operation, even if you have a child to pick up from the nursery and will lose your place there if you are late.” But such demanding specialisations are also the most lucrative ones
Barristers are following a similar pattern. As was once the case with doctors, climbing the career ladder means always being available for work and sticking with a case until it is settled. Though the Bar Council, the body that regulates and represents trial lawyers, has recently required all barristers’ chambers to formalise their policies on maternity leave, this has not altered those demands. This is particularly true of the best-paid work at the commercial bar, where cases can drag on for years and the weekend is often a misnomer. Women tend to focus on work at the criminal bar, where cases are shorter, less glamorous, less demanding—and less well paid.
Numbers are sketchy, but anecdotal evidence suggests that few female commercial barristers return to work after having babies. Some chambers are trying to find ways of making life easier for women and thus encouraging them to come back after childbirth. “Babysitting” cases for barristers on maternity leave is being tried out, but clients may baulk at having their cases looked after by an au pair. Christa Richmond of Middle Temple, a medieval outfit that serves as a barristers’ guild, worries that those mothers who do return to the commercial bar will “revert to type”, taking only short, low-profile cases.
It is the same story in the Church of England (where women are still barred from becoming bishops). Women are well placed to meet the demand for more part-time clergy, created by declining churchgoing: a shrunken congregation may not merit a full-time priest. Women priests also show a preference for non-stipendiary (unpaid) work: the most recent figures show 314 women training to be non-stipendiary priests, compared with just 200 men. Whatever their pastoral value, such clergy are less likely to secure the top jobs in the Church, if they are ever allowed to apply for them.
Feminists have long had two aims for the workplace. First, that women should be equally represented across the workforce and in all types of jobs. Second, that the sisterhood should be paid as much, or as little, as men doing the same job. They thought these aims were complementary: in fact, they may conflict. The Economist