Suzanne Carthy

Suzanne Carthy

PhD Thesis Title: Inequality regimes and long hours: A mixed methods analysis of gender inequality in the solicitors' profession in Ireland.

Supervisor: Associate Professor Colm McLaughlin

External Examiner: Professor Jennifer Tomlinson, Leeds University Business School


This dissertation examines gender inequality in the solicitors’ profession in Ireland, exploring the ‘keyhole’ issue of gendered occupational segregation. Using a mixed-methods approach, and an integrated theoretical framework, I analyse data for the entire profession, and outline its highly gendered contours. The findings confirm the existence of vertical segregation; in an increasingly feminised profession, senior positions remain dominated by men. The statistical analysis demonstrates that being female halves lawyers’ chances of progression to partnership. Taking maternity leave is additionally detrimental to career success, significantly diminishing the likelihood of promotion. While these findings are mirrored in other jurisdictions, and in other professions, this study is the first such detailed study of the solicitors’ profession in Ireland, and makes a valuable contribution to policy and practice in the Irish context, building on foundational work conducted by Bacik et al. (2003).

Through in-depth semi-structured interviews and participant observation with forty-eight individuals, I explore the experience of inclusion in a profession which is so significantly gendered. Although statistics confirmed women’s own observations regarding career progression, e.g., that motherhood, or the prospect of it, is a significant factor influencing the career trajectory, how did they rationalise this? What does that feel like? What is women’s experience of inclusion in a post-feminist context where career success is portrayed as a matter of simply ‘leaning in’?

Interviews also reveal how and why patterns confirmed in the statistical data emerge. By observing and interrogating the daily routines and working practices of lawyers, forms of control are identified which are highly gendered; from bureaucratic and technical controls such as recorded billable hours, to unobtrusive, cultural norms in the workplace. I examine these aspects of solicitors’ labour process using an explicitly gendered lens, integrating Joan Acker’s theory of gendered organizations (1990) and inequality regimes (2006) and labour process analysis.

Reviewing both labour process theory ("LPT") and Acker’s theoretical perspectives, I identify “points of commonality” (Jaros, 2010, p. 85) and connections which enlarge our understanding of gender inequality at work. Both LPT and Acker’s theory of gendered organizations and inequality regimes illustrate the importance of work practices as sites of interaction in which the contours of participation and power in firms are established. Connecting both frames of analysis, in the context of the law firm, this integrated theoretical framework demonstrates the inter-relatedness of work practices and gender, as constituents and derivatives of inequality.

Focusing on control mechanisms such as billable hours, which are framed as meritocratic and gender neutral, I explore the extent to which inequality is legitimised and rationalised. I illustrate how this legitimisation of inequality occurs in the context of discourses of post-feminism, amidst claims that equality has been achieved, and that career success, for women and men, is a matter of individual choice and effort.

The central contribution this study makes to theory development is to illustrate how integrating Labour Process Theory (“LPT”)  and gendered organizations and inequality regimes enlarges our understanding of inequality and subordination. Specifically, I draw on the legitimacy and visibility components of Acker’s inequality regimes framework to demonstrate how features of control such as working time and billable hours, interact with the profit imperative at the core of LPT, to reproduce and legitimise inequality. In so doing, this research offers a materialist feminist lens on work and inequality.  

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