Aberdeen Women in Law: In Conversation with Professor Emerita Margaret Ross

Aberdeen Women in Law: In Conversation with Professor Emerita Margaret Ross
2021-03-08

For the inaugural Aberdeen Women in Law Conversation Series, I am pleased to present my conversation with Professor Emerita Margaret Ross, which I conducted with support from the School of Law’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Margaret graduated from the University of Aberdeen Law School in 1979 and went on to work in legal practice in Aberdeen. She was invited to become a part-time tutor in 1980 and then joined the Law School full-time in December 1992. Margaret served as Head of the College of Arts and Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017 and Vice-Principal (People) from 2015 to 2018. Her research interests lie in the law of evidence, court and tribunals procedure (particularly for family and mental health concerns), and dispute resolution with a focus on mediation. She was appointed as professor emerita on her retirement at the end of August 2020. She is now looking forward to setting her own agenda, spending time travelling with her husband and enjoying leisurely walks, whilst rediscovering her hobbies.

Mary Gilmore-Maurer (MG): You are a University of Aberdeen law graduate. Can you tell us about your time studying here, including some of your formative memories and staff that inspired you?

Professor Margaret Ross (MR): I entered the law school as a first year student in 1975 and graduated in 1979. I can remember my first day and having an enormous sense of imposter syndrome. I felt like I was surrounded by people who were more confident, more connected with the law than I was, as I had no prior connections whatsoever, and was coming from a what would now be called a low socio-economic household. It felt strange and it felt scary. But there were six others from the all-girls senior school I had attended, and although I did not know them particularly well before university, we formed a group. It was pleasing to note that 55 per cent of that entry class in 1975 was female. There were about 140 of us altogether. We got on well as a class. We stayed mainly with our own sort of friendship groups, but you got to know a wider group through tutorials, and social events. Although there was a good gender mix, there was not a terrific international or ethnic mix. It was a largely Scottish population with some from other parts of the United Kingdom and occasionally other countries, but I enjoyed it. I found staff hugely supportive.

One mentor was Geoffrey McCormack, who was then a Professor of Jurisprudence; he pleasingly still occasionally comes into the law school as an emeritus member of staff. I got to know him best when I became an honours student. At that point, most law students did not take the honours degree. They did a three-year degree that was focused on what was needed for practice. There were only twelve of us who did the honours course. I was the only female in the class, but I quite liked it. I did feel that I had to hold my own and be equally competitive but everyone was very supportive. Geoffrey taught me Advanced Roman Law over two years of honours - a subject that I have never regretted studying because it teaches you textual analysis in a way that nothing else does, as well as the history of the time. There were probably five or six women in the academic staff team of about 25, a number were from practice and went back into practice. It took some years afterwards for the numbers of female academic staff to build up. The administrative team were all female. Again, they were very supportive. Professor Frank Lyall, still an emeritus member of staff, was also supportive, particularly in Public Law. He encouraged me to study further and to apply for an academic post after I had gone into practice.

MG: Can you tell us about your career path? I am also interested in your thoughts on how we tend to think of career paths in a very linear way. Perhaps careers do not always go that way.

MR: I graduated in 1979, when most of my class had graduated in 1978, and most had gone into what was then called an apprenticeship to be a lawyer, the forerunner of the current legal trainee. I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do as well. However, as I say, Professor Lyall and others suggested that I might want to follow the academic line, but it was fairly uncommon to go on to do a research degree and work in academia. I got married in 1978; I was slightly uncommon in that I got married as an undergraduate student. When being interviewed for training places, people would ask me what my intentions were about having children, especially if I was wearing an engagement ring, or a wedding ring.

At the time, people did not hold back in asking such questions. I tried to answer honestly, pointing out that they could expect as much from me as they could from a male appointee. When I was looking for places to learn how to be a legal practitioner, I did specifically look at firms that had female partners. In Aberdeen, there were three or four such firms at the time. I ended up not being employed by one of those firms. The women seemed not to be involved in the recruitment process. I was very happy to be appointed by a smallish firm. They had a consultant who was a professor at the University - maybe he was aware of my existence as an honours student. They had one other female, qualified solicitor and all the rest of the legal staff was male. There was an excellent female paralegal or legal executive as she was called at the time who was a great influence on me. She just quietly got on and did her job very effectively. Then there was quite a large administrative staff, all of whom were female. I was mentored by the female solicitor, who was a court and family lawyer and so I got into doing that. She introduced me to people at court. I suppose one thing that struck me, probably all the way through, was the importance of getting to know people, remembering their names, asking about their family and interests, building strong relationships with the clerks at court and with other lawyers and other firms so that, when you came to be dealing with a tricky case, you did not have a difficult relationship with the person on the other side. You trusted one another.

While I followed the herd into the practice of law, I was later invited to be a tutor at the law school. I would come into the law school a couple of times a week and teach tutorials in a range of different subjects. I always enjoyed that side. I did not see as much of the whole faculty as might have been a good thing. Tutors tend to pop in and do the job and go away again and are not necessarily involved in the community of the law school but I was aware of jobs coming up. In fact, I applied for a job in Public Law, a lectureship, in 1983 but they took a long time to deal with it. In the meantime, the firm I was working for offered me a partnership to start in January 1984 and so I stayed on there. I had my first child in October 1986 and then twins in December 1989. As a partner, I was a self-employed part of the team, so I felt it was important not to take too much time off. There was not much of a maternity leave to speak of. I had tremendous support from my colleagues and from people who I dealt with at court.

As to whether the path is linear or not, I think it was, at that time, more linear than it is now. With the financial downturn in 1988 and ever since then, I think people have been a bit more flexible in terms of what they do and what they use their education for. Although what I would say, is my husband has always worked in Aberdeen, although he lived abroad when he was young. We never had that difficult decision about one person following the other in our partnership. My experience, as an academic and as an academic manager, is that it still tends to be women who follow men, if it is a heterosexual partnership. I have less evidence in relation to same sex partnerships, but it would be an interesting piece of information to have both historically and contemporaneously. If people are willing to tell you, it is an interesting view to try to understand.

MG: How did your experience in practice help you in your academic career?

MR: Practice helped me to have things to plunge into in research terms right away because in practice, you are quite often frustrated that you have to do what the client is willing to pay for or the legal aid board has to pay for and you have to help them fix the problem. On the way, you encounter interesting legal points, but you are not charged with following them up because that is not what you are being paid to do. I did divorces and adoption work as well and it made me very aware of the challenges and the great experiences that people have in their own lives. What we see from the outside when we are dealing with people is often a fraction of what they are dealing with. In terms of both trying to be insightful in research, but also dealing with students and colleagues over the years, my practice been particularly helpful. You have to make no assumptions about what experiences people have had and what challenges they are dealing with.

MG: There seems to be in comparison to some countries a bigger divide between practice and academia in the United Kingdom. What ultimately made you go into academia and how did you progress?

MR: A few things made me switch. One was that frustration when you come across interesting situations and you cannot explore them in greater depth. Also, my husband and I were both partners in private firms at a time when there had been a financial downturn. There was an element of spreading one's bets, in terms of security of income. There was also the sense that at least parts of the university year would be more flexible and more manageable than the legal practice year, which always had to respond to situations. January would always be very busy with divorce work, for example. There were real hot spots throughout the year when you simply always had to respond to the client's needs. Whereas in the academic world, there was the sense of more flexibility when teaching was not happening, but on the other hand, maybe less flexibility when teaching was happening. Those were the main reasons.

I also still had a fondness for the law school. I still knew a number of members of staff, and I think it was just that sense that although I would have to teach certain things and do certain things, when it came to research, largely, I could drive my own agenda and I still think that is an enormous advantage in the academic world. Interestingly, in England, there has often been more exchange between practice and academia. Quite a number of the senior posts in English universities are held by people who continue to practise part-time. That definitely fell away in Scotland by the end of the 1970s, I would say. It became very much a professional academic career as distinct from a legal practice professional career.

MG: You have held high-level roles at the university. Could you talk about some of your highlights, whether personally or professionally?

MR: Well, I suppose the highlight was getting the university job in the first place. They did actually let me carry on with a small consultancy in legal practice so there was an on-going feeding of ideas between the two and I did some research on the legal profession. It was only in 2006 when I gave up that part-time consultancy and gave up my practising certificate. It was one of those things that I felt it had been so hard-earned that in the beginning I really did not want to give it up and so I held on to it. But I got some research commissioned from the Scottish Parliament that required me to be not in any way connected with legal practice so that was a good time to stop.

I enjoyed pretty much every aspect of becoming an academic. The long deadlines for research were slightly alien to someone who was used to giving the client advice within 48 hours or so. I love working with the students and seeing them grow from what they were like when they came into the school for the first time until when they graduate. One of the things I was asked to do quite soon after I joined was to become involved in planning a Women in Higher Education Conference that was to happen at the university in 1994. That was to celebrate the centenary of women being admitted as graduating students at the University of Aberdeen. They were having a big conference and lots of different streams, related to different academic disciplines and they did not have anyone to do the Women and Law stream. I walked in the door just at the time when someone needed to pick that up. It was a great way of meeting people from across the University.

That is one of the things I like, in particular, about university work; you become a member of a community. It is basically a town and you meet all these people with different disciplines and interesting people in all sorts of different jobs. That was great exposure for me. The conference was a success and I enjoyed being part of that. Part of me is instinctively a bit of a team player rather than sticking my hand up and being in the lead. But of course, what then happened was that I got asked to lead to various different things. I eventually became a senate member and then I became Head of School. Following that I became a Chair and then a Vice Principal, which some people describe as really going into the dark side, once you are a university manager. There is an element of that, because there are tricky decisions that have to be made and budgets that have to be balanced. Still, I am glad I did all of those things.

The highlights were when other people showed the confidence in me to ask me to do different things and then being very kind in doing the things I then asked them to do. Again, I think seeing other people's success in their careers, even when academics move on to other places, you still take pride in what they have achieved in their time at Aberdeen, which I think has been a really good proving ground for lots of excellent academics. I think we have done that as much as possible in an even-handed way. You always get blips on the path, but I think people have been supported and advanced on the basis of their abilities.

The biggest challenge is if people do not talk about how they feel about the advancement of their career and they begin to potentially build up resentment when they see things happening. Sometimes it is just pure misunderstanding, or it is that those who are allocating roles or supporting others do not realise that that person would really like to try something different. I do think that an effective annual review process and proper conversations with senior academics in the school help to move that on. Certainly, it is all a bit more transparent than it was when I started.

MG: As the first female professor and head of the Law School, do you feel that working in academia has changed during your time there, whether in general or for women in particular?

MR: Yes, I think it has. The main thing is that there are more role models. I would like it to be the case that no one had to talk about gender, or any other protected characteristics. It would be wonderful if everything was just all part of the melting pot. When I picked up that conference back in 1994, no other women in the Law School would do it. There were not many of them, but I think they also wondered why they would have to do it as it was an added job for them to do over and above everything else. Now I have to say nearly 30 years on, there is probably still an element of that. It would be great if it was actually men who were championing women in a more overt way. I have never felt that people discriminated against me particularly, apart from one colleague who asked me always to make his tea and it was not a joke. In the main, men are supportive of women, but we maybe do not create as many situations as we might for them to be the champions of women and the same across all the protected characteristics. But it is definitely more balanced now than it was.

I was against there being publicity about me being the first female Head of School or the first female professor because, in fact, we were behind most other law schools. The rest had promoted women before. It was in a way a coincidence who was working in which university at any given time, but Aberdeen was definitely behind the curve. It looked a bit daft to be celebrating something that should have happened earlier and to someone other than me. I just happened to be there at the time; female chairs are much more mainstream now. Although a couple of years ago when Edinburgh University had a photo session for their female chairs as part of their Athena SWAN work, I noticed while there were a decent number of them, there still was not a huge number compared to the size of the law school.

The Law Society of Scotland did commission research about career trajectories in the profession. It was certainly the case that although women were the majority of entrants to the profession, they were after five years, more or less, on an equal level with men, but then the men in terms of seniority of posts and salaries took off. There is information in our university about gender pay gap and related issues, although it is not necessarily as sophisticated or broken down as you would want. I do think that side of it all needs to be understood better. Are women making pragmatic choices – for example, to be a primary caregiver in the partnership? Are they seeing roles that motivate them? If not, they may choose other roles. I think there is still a lot that needs to be understood. At the moment, my daughter is pregnant, and she works abroad. She has a partner who has always followed her with her career and is hugely supportive. It is interesting for me to watch that next generation.

MG: When you were promoted to professorship, were there other women in the law school and did it take longer for them to be promoted? What was the context of the time?

MR: The women who were in the law school when I was a student all left or retired without reaching professorial level. Now, again, I do not know if they aspired to that or not. I have heard that some of them found it difficult or found it off-putting to go through the kind of promotion process that our university has, where you have to present yourself for promotion, you have to set out your stall. I think that in itself is something of an inhibitor and remains the case for many women and some men.

Over the years as an academic manager I have really had to push people to set out their stall in our promotions application. It is not the time to be coy. It is the time to tell your story and not forget all the bits that you have done just because you like to do that, or you like helping people. All of it matters. Those women who were on the staff when I was a student, as far as I know none of them aspired to chair. Those who were around me when I was a new member of academic staff, again, none of those had applied for chair before I did. Most were not in the senior lecturer band. One of the lovely things is that more women have now been employed and more have been promoted up through the ranks, but I was the only one at that particular time applying to become a chair.

MG: Looking back at your time in academia, what are some of the lessons learned or things that you maybe appreciate more fully now?

MR: If we think about the advancement route, I have made the point that I think people should be open in their discussions about that. I think people are a bit like, “I am not going to tell anyone I am thinking of applying for promotion in case I am not going to be successful.” I think it would be better if people were more open. In addition, we need openness in terms of how the work is allocated. That has improved, but it could probably improve more. So I might be inclined, not in a cheeky way, but if asked to do something, to ask why I have been selected in a positive way. The positive answer could be, “well, you are best skilled to do this” or, “you are someone I know will do this and finish it” or, “this will add to your CV in a way that helps build for advancement.” If you agree to do what has been asked, how is this leaving your workload compared to others around you? I think if you can get an assurance of fairness in the process, then you can confidently take things on and run with them and make it a success.

I do worry that possibly women more than men, possibly people with protected characteristics more than others are inclined to say yes, when they should potentially be saying, “well, I am glad you have got the confidence to think that I could do this, but are you sure you have allocated these roles in a fair way?” I would not as such be more argumentative, but I would potentially be more questioning of the thinking process around work, workload allocation, research leaves and such, because it is very important to nurture everyone. If you nurture everyone fairly, you are on stronger ground.

For example, I had taken on a review of the curriculum at one time and produced a report, which had taken a lot of time and other people had helped. Some people in the law school commented about it. I always think it is part of an academic job to criticise and knock things down, so if you are the one who has written the report, everybody else says, “oh, what about this and that.” I remember a colleague saying, “well, that is just the risk of putting your head above the parapet.” I am still glad I put my head above the parapet even if it did not always work well, but I think it was the right thing to do. That worked for me, but I can see how some people would not necessarily want to get involved in that type of activity. The main thing is that there is a way of reflecting their skills and their commitment in other ways. It does not have to be by getting involved in something controversial.

MG: What is your advice to female students? Is it a cliché, or do you think there is something about women not doing as much self-promotion as perhaps their male counterparts?

MR: I think there is an element of it. It is a huge generalisation, but I have always tried to look at it by examples. When looking for who the first female graduates were who went into practice in Scotland, there were no images. You could have found portraits and photographs of all the men, but not the women. I think women should feel that it is important, not just for them, it is not about being pushy or self-important. It is important to get yourself into those places and into those images, so that those who come behind you will see that you have been there. It seems a simple thing, but it is really important. And again, some women, and it seems to apply to some men too, they will always hang back. They will not want to be above the parapet or in the forefront or in the photograph but I think it is really important for others that they do that.

I think, in general, women are often more reflective about themselves. We used to offer mock interviews for legal traineeships. I have never had a male student volunteer for a mock interview. Usually, female students queued up to do it but male students did not. I think as part of our legal training, it is almost incumbent on us to give students the opportunity to present themselves and to get feedback in a safe environment, not necessarily in front of everyone else. To be given that reassurance and given the opportunities to build, because they often exist more readily for men than women. Again, that is a generalisation because personality, culture, and all sorts of things come into it. I would encourage young people to look for role models, and for everyone else to try and be a role model so that we're supporting one another going forward.

MG: Is there any other advice or tips you would give to female students?

MR: Think about your skillset. I remember a student of mine whose father was concerned about the extent of her involvement in sports. She played one sport at a national and one at a district level, but her academic work was really good as well. She was being urged by her father to drop some of the sports. I said that from the point of view of an employer who is going to see hundreds of CVs, someone who has a good upper second or first degree, they are not going to see that many where someone has national sporting experience together with all the skills that go with it like teamwork, leadership, time management, commitment and all sorts of things. If it is applied to everyone, including women, we should do as much as we can to support people to present themselves fully, and to recognise just how much they can do, not just in terms of their core legal knowledge but as a person and the combination of everything they do. Whatever they do in law, it is going to be about effective communication. They need to have as much confidence in themselves as they can. There are other binaries in that of course, for example in terms of public versus independent education and in terms of the confidence building work done up to the date of entering university education. Situations such as gender, circumstances and prior education are all factors, but they need good female and male role models. It is good to have that mix and those champions.

MG: You have said that you are not from a law background. Having made a career in law, what does the law mean to you?

MR: I think it was the right thing for me to do, although when I was Head of College, seeing all the different disciplines across Arts and Social Sciences as well as the wider university, I did think there were other things that I might quite like to do. I do still think the law was right for me though. I have always been someone who demanded fairness. The law enables you to create fairness and touch points for fairness in lots of different situations. I suppose possibly one of the downsides is that I write like a lawyer, I think like a lawyer, sometimes I speak like a lawyer in situations in which maybe I should not but I still think it is such a fantastic discipline to give you an insight into the whole of what happens in society. One thing that really pleases me is that we are working a lot more with other disciplines particularly in the academic world. I used to be discouraged from that, particularly from senior colleagues. I tended to say, “yes, yes” but carried on doing it anyway. The good thing now is that there is a much greater interface. I would say to anyone that working across disciplines is so important for whatever you use the law for.

MG: Your research continues. Can you tell us a bit more about what you are dedicating your time to now?

MR: I finished off another publication on mediation because although legal rules and evidence in particular have been my thing and I have been heavily involved in dispute resolution, I am still involved in writing about that. I hold some committee memberships and I chair a charity and so I tend to channel my legal thinking through those different avenues. It is a wonderful thing to have the time to follow through and read into it and understand it. My husband is now also retired and he goes off on a rant about things from time to time, and I find myself saying, “well, there’s another side to that” or “we don’t have all the facts so we shouldn’t really judge.” It is hard to shake that mindset off. There is very much still scope for volunteering and helping others.

I am doing some screen printing and knitting and definitely more cooking. All the things, which were always pushed to the background when I was bringing up three kids and working full-time. I am now getting back to things over which I can take more time.

MG: What changes to the world would you like to see?

MR: I wish people would listen more to one another and other people’s perspectives. I suppose that is in part from teaching mediation and negotiation. You can see a set of facts or a situation in so many different ways. That is particularly the case internationally around things like climate and poverty and sustainability. It was worrying for a time when there was a resistance to expert comments on things. We have now almost flipped the other way now during COVID where everyone is grasping for experts to put in front of a camera to say things. That almost gives you even more views on the situation. Listening and kindness are so important, and I would hope that coming out of this situation we have been put in across the world that hopefully more of that will happen. I have always been a bit of an optimist.

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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