This article was originally published in The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.

First came the “Great Resignation” – the trend describing record numbers of people leaving their jobs after the COVID-19 pandemic. Then came the “Great Reshuffle” – where workers didn’t just leave, they reconstructed their careers to ones aligning more with their values. Now, it appears we’re amid a “Great Breakup” between senior women leaders and businesses.

According to the latest “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey, “women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen, and ambitious young women are prepared to do the same”. The report also highlights that this is especially true for women of colour. This potentially has serious implications for businesses everywhere, including in the Scottish legal profession.

Despite feminisation of the profession continuing, with around two thirds of newly admitted members being female each year (according to the Law Society of Scotland’s Diversity Data from the 2020-21 Practising Certificate Renewal), the latest available data, the 2018 Profile of the Profession, shows a significantly higher proportion of males who were equity partners in private practice (26%) than females (7%). It also showed a higher proportion of female than male respondents who spent longer as a senior associate or similar level below partnership before becoming a partner.

At the time of going to print, the Society has issued its latest Profile of the Profession survey. I await the results of that with hope that the 2023 senior leader/partner figures are more reflective of what our profession looks like. However, a quick look at websites of legal organisations and firms in Scotland shows that women tend to remain underrepresented in leadership/partner roles. It is vital that these women are retained as, otherwise, not only does our profession lose them, but it risks losing the next generation of women leaders too. Young women are watching senior women leave for other opportunities and they may well follow suit.


But why are women leaders across all sectors leaving at the highest rate we’ve ever seen? And at a much higher rate than men leaders? According to the McKinsey report, there are three primary factors:

  1. Women leaders want to advance, but they face stronger headwinds than men. Women experience microaggressions undermining their authority, implying they aren’t qualified enough, or face suggestions that it’s more difficult to advance due to personal characteristics such as being a parent or their gender.
  2. Women leaders are overworked and under-recognised. Compared with men at the same level, women leaders invest far more time and energy doing work which supports employee wellbeing and fosters diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). While it’s now widely accepted that this work is vital and considerably improves the employee experience, it’s unfortunately still not considered important enough to merit actual reward and recognition in most businesses: 40% of women leaders say their valuable DEI work isn’t acknowledged or formally recognised at all in performance reviews. Is it surprising then that more women in leadership than men end up experiencing burnout?
  3. Women leaders are seeking a different culture of work. Women want more flexibility or to work somewhere really committed to employee wellbeing and DEI.

Equity before equality

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is worth a mention here – #EmbraceEquity. A useful and timely reminder that organisations should be aiming for equity over equality.

Equity recognises that women have different needs from men. So, although more women might be moving into leadership positions, societal expectations and lack of employer support continue to interfere with their careers. Therefore, resources and support should be allocated with equity in mind, particularly when it comes to inclusion, health, and wellbeing.

To truly support women in the workplace, employers must understand the health conditions some women may experience, and which can impact their careers. Providing health and wellbeing support for, for example, pregnancy, miscarriage, and menopause significantly improves a workplace’s chances of retaining current staff and attracting new talent. Firms and businesses must recognise, and provide, what women need – a supportive workplace culture, effective mentoring and sponsorship, career advancement opportunities, flexibility, and investment in reskilling.

According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 132 years to close the global gender pay gap, and women will continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions. With statistics like that, it’s absolutely imperative that all employers sit up, take notice and do whatever they can to prevent senior women from walking away.