Christmas centenary for woman lawyers
A century has now passed since women were permitted to qualify as lawyers, but despite “great progress” there is still a long way to go to achieve full gender equality in the law, according to the Law Society.
On 23 December 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force lifting the bar on women entering the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions.
The Act also allowed women to sit on juries and become magistrates for the first time. 100 years on and half of practising solicitors today are women.
Philippa Sturt, managing partner at Joelson, commented: “[This 100th anniversary] is without a doubt an incredible landmark, which should serve as a reminder to celebrate the great work achieved every day by women in the legal sector.”
However, the Law Society said: “Women are still not reaching senior positions in sufficient numbers.”
International research carried out by the Law Society in 2018 showed less than a third (30.1 per cent) of partners in private practice are women.
Many factors and obstacles were identified in the research for the slow progress of women in the profession included “unconscious bias, a difficult work-life balance and networking opportunities being male focused”.
The Society’s president Simon Davis commented: “The profession has made important steps in the right direction but for real change to take root, firms across the country must put the right policies in place and work together to build a more diverse workplace for the next generation”.
There is also a clear disparity between the sexes in their perceptions of how far progress has in fact been.
The Law Society’s research revealed that nearly three quarters of men reported progress on gender equality in the last five years, but just 48 per cent of women did so.
Strurt commented: "There are many more women joining the profession than men, and I think that men see this and think that’s sorted.
"What they don’t always appreciate is that there are still less women in more senior positions and this is not always acknowledged.
"Plus, I think men see a management board, for example, with a couple of women on it and think, 'that’s done'; when people should focus on the equality part - gender equality will only have been achieved when there are as many women as men in senior positions, not just token ones."
Davis said an overwhelming number (91 per cent) of respondents to the survey said flexible working was crucial to improving diversity.
He added: “Creating a more flexible, inclusive working environment gives those with care responsibilities equal opportunities for progression and helps create a more diverse senior leadership.”
Sturt commented: “This Act was the first hugely significant step that allowed the creation of diversity that we see in the legal profession today.
“Without it, our society would certainly be a very different place.”
But she agrees the profession “still has a long way to go both in terms of sex equality and race equality… yet many of these continuing changes would not have been possible without the foundational work of this Act”.