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Diversity scorecard: influencing positive change in law firms

Diversity scorecard: influencing positive change in law firms


Dr Kate Cook considers how the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote is inspiring the next generation of law professionals

Last year marked the centenary of The Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women to vote in elections for the first time. The act gave the vote to men over 21 but only to women over 30. It took ten more years for equal franchise to finally be achieved.

The centenary has enabled many school-teachers and university lecturers to share ideas about equality with young people, encouraging them to consider how much has changed, while also thinking about the issues that we still face today.

For my university, this provided an opportunity to engage with law firms on the work they are doing to address inequality and help many understand the experiences and expertise of the next generation of law students.

A particular project in Manchester has enabled schoolchildren to experience setting up campaigns about issues that interest them. Young people have responded confidently, working on issues including knife crime, period poverty, gender stereo- typing and homelessness. The ‘Rise, Voice, Vote’ project (, led by the Pankhurst Centre, was one of many funded by grants from central government which has made a real impact on education and is helping to inspire the next generation of law students concerned with gender equality.

Several events held at the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender and Diversity Research Centre celebrated Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who was once a student at the university’s Manchester College of Art. The centre undertakes gender equality research and aims to work alongside current students to create a space where they can address meetings about inequality issues that concern them. The engagement of law firms across Greater Manchester has been extremely positive in bridging the gap between the experiences of students at university and preparing them for a career in the legal sector.

Some of the biggest law firms in the UK are involved, such as Irwin Mitchell, Pannone, Eversheds and SAS Daniels, and the students are able to benefit from these links and share their experiences through regular guest lectures from active practitioners, engaging in work placements and attending employer-networking events.


Once women had the vote in 1918, a number of other barriers began to fall away. This year (2019) is the centenary of women being able to enter important professions. A woman was first able to join the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors in 1919 and it is reported that Mary Harris Smith became the first female chartered accountant, at the grand age of 72.

A second profession, which women accessed in 1919, was the law. It is breathtaking to think, now that we are used to seeing women in the most senior legal roles, that we have only been able to practice for 100 years this year.

Women were able to enter the legal professions due to changes brought about by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which repealed all rules preventing women from accessing universities, the courts and the civil service. Women were able to serve as magistrates or jurors and to become solicitors or barristers. Marriage was also, theoretically, removed as a bar to entering the professions, though it continued in practice for decades thereafter.

But equally strikingly today, only 29 per cent of court judges are women and only 7 per cent are from BAME communities. It is clear that, as a profession, there is more work to be done on equality and it is the example set by education institutions, professional bodies and law firms that can begin to make a difference.

Katie Broomfield, of Royal Holloway University of London, is researching the women who first - and originally unsuccessfully - applied to the Bar and to the Law Society. With the support of the law sector, Katie has produced an exhibition titled “Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers”.

One of the women featured in her exhibition is Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia’s older sister, who was the first and only woman in her year to read for a law degree at Victoria (now Manchester) University, graduating with first-class honours in 1906. In 1904, Christabel applied to become a member of Lincoln’s Inn, where her father, Richard Pankhurst, had been a member.

Without any reasons given other than her sex, Christabel’s application was refused and, as her mother pointed out, “she never appeared at the Bar in any capacity except that of defendant.”


Clearly, there is plenty of scope for others within the profession to get involved in celebrating this important landmark. Many firms will be preparing their own events or programmes marking the 2019 centenary of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act. We are also welcoming the transfer of ideas from the ‘Rise, Voice, Vote’ initiative to create debates about the issues of inequality in the professions that are still making an impact on lives today.

It would be great to see firms who have specialist interests putting together evidence on, for example, the problems faced by black women experiencing domestic abuse that could be of use to groups working to help these survivors. As a sector, we have a unique position in the continuing debates around equality through the casework and access to individual struggles that are often not witnessed in wider society. It is vital that law professionals add their voice to the fight for equality.

Equally, it would be excellent if others wanted to think about creating local versions of Greater Manchester’s Pankhurst- Fawcett Scorecard, a new initiative which looks at a scorecard of gender inequality now, with the aim of influencing positive change by 2028.

This was launched on 6 February 2019, 101 years after the Representation of the People Act 1918, and a team of lawyers, academics, activists and others are working to ensure that the act continues to be highlighted, in order to make real change. Firms in Greater Manchester are extremely welcome to get involved in this work and make their own pledge to create change. In other areas, firms and law schools could use the Pankhurst-Fawcett model to create their own initiatives.

Ultimately, we hope that our initiatives will interest our students and others in thinking about the ways in which women still face discrimination today, while in- spiring our law students to make a difference in a sector that has such a profound impact on the lives of people across the world. SJ


Dr Kate Cook is head of the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender and Diversity Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University