Letter: Woman in a man’s world

Margaret Hall CBE

Following the news that Ethel Houston OBE passed away last month, her friend and contemporary, Margaret Hall CBE gives SLN readers a fascinating glimpse into her own life in the law.

I was sorry to hear about the death of Ethel Houston. I remember well that day in 1975 when she and I attended our first Law Society council meeting and became the first women members of that council. We were both well aware of the significance of the occasion and although both of us were reasonably well known in the profession, we were somewhat apprehensive about how we would be received as council members. All went well however and we quickly settled in to the routine of the council and I suppose this was an early step by council towards gender equality.

The item in your publication sparked off a whole series of recollections.

I went up to Glasgow University in 1950 intent on doing an M.A. and LL.B and pursuing a legal career. My father sought advice from his lawyer who said the law wasn’t a job for a woman! At that time to qualify students had to serve a three-year apprenticeship concurrently with studying for the LL.B so lectures were in the early morning and late afternoon and Saturday morning, with working the office in between. Apprenticeships in Glasgow were obtained by presenting oneself in the Royal Faculty of Procurators and my recollection is that apart from some queries about my religion, I was given  a list of firms seeking apprentices, went to the nearest firm on the list and after a brief interview was more or less told “See you on Monday” How different from today! But the pay was £50 per annum in the first year, £75 in the second year and £100 in the third year less national insurance payable on Mondays, so five Monday months were anathema.

When I started my apprenticeship, this was the first time I had been in an office and I had only attended one day of lectures. Small wonder then much of my first year was occupied in fairly mundane tasks. I recall heating the Glasgow Herald by the coal fire to dry the ink before the partner read it, balancing and then copying out in longhand (no computers or word processors) endless accounts of charge and discharge and the highlight of the week attending the small debt court in Glasgow Sheriff Court.

In my year in law there were four women of whom only myself and the late Elizabeth Kemp went on to pursue legal careers.

I was aware that I was a woman in a man’s world, but did not really know what to expect. A lot of the time people did not know who I was or why I was there, and were excessively polite, standing up when I came into a room. However, I do not consider that I had any difficulty in progressing and can only think of one incident where a man may have been preferred over me for a job because I was a woman. However, it is a well-known mantra that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get half as far. I did have to prove myself and had to establish my authority.

After my apprenticeship, I continued in private practice until I had a family. At that time there was no maternity leave so I gave up my professional career at that time. When I took up her career again, this was with the East Kilbride Development Corporation. I found I enjoyed the public sector and continued there, moving to the Scottish Industrial Estates Corporation, which became the Scottish Development Agency and then Scottish Enterprise. I eventually became chief solicitor with Scottish Enterprise, retiring from there in 1992.

I can honestly say that I enjoyed my legal career and would also say that a substantial number of people qualifying around the same time had very successful careers.