Driving progress forward
Dana Denis-Smith wants to see more action taken to achieve equality for women in law
Last year, the profession celebrated the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.
It was great to see so many people from the legal community and beyond getting involved, to celebrate and learn more about the stories of those legal pioneers and the hard-won progress of the last 100 years.
Through the work I have done with the First 100 Years project in the five years leading up to the centenary, I have heard from many women about their experiences working in the profession.
Hearing their stories and the scepticism among many who fear real equality is still at least 20 years away, it has become clear more needs to be done to accelerate the pace of change.
More women than men now enter the legal profession. However, they are still under-represented at the top, whether that’s among judges, QCs, partners in law firms or in management positions.
We can’t afford to sit around and wait for change, so as the First 100 Years comes to an end, we are launching The Next 100 Years. This is a project dedicated to achieving equality for women in law.
Over the next decade, the project will be taking action, encouraging collaboration to tackle inequality, improving the visibility of women in law and supporting the women lawyers of the future.
The legal pioneers of the last 100 years have left an enduring legacy for us to build on. Much has been achieved; and many organisations in the legal world are succeeding in creating a better working environment for women, in which discrimination and harassment are not tolerated and family-friendly working patterns are at least a possibility.
Things are moving in the right direction, but it’s too slow – we don’t want to wait another 100 years for equality.
Collaboration is important and real change will only be achieved when the profession comes together to act and remove barriers to the progression of women in law.
We plan to set up a cross-profession taskforce, bringing together senior individuals (both men and women) from across the different branches of the law and their representative bodies, to discuss the key barriers to equality and to formulate recommendations for change.
Visibility is also a key driver of change. Women lawyers of the past and present need to be seen. Having just one or two high-profile women in your organisation is not enough – we need rock bands, not rock stars.
I want to see more women lawyers in the public realm, speaking on their areas of expertise rather than just on diversity issues, so we plan to hold an annual lecture series featuring women who are leaders in their field.
The profession also needs to support the next generation of women lawyers. While more women are choosing a career in law, we still need to look at how we can open it up to women from underrepresented groups, such as those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
We will be looking at ways we can help improve accessibility, including bursaries and a mentoring scheme. Continuing to tell the story of today’s ’firsts’ is also a priority for us.
We are ensuring that our archive is preserved for future generations while continuing to build on the work of the First 100 Years, capturing the inspirational stories of today’s pioneering women lawyers and educating the public on the legacy of the legal pioneers of the past.
The centenary celebrations have played an important role in highlighting the progress that has been made. But they have also brought into sharp focus how much more needs to be done.
The work undertaken by initiatives such as the First 100 Years, and by the Bar Council and the Law Society, means there is now far greater awareness of what the issues are and why progress towards equality remains stubbornly slow.
Over the next decade I want to see decisive action taken to tackle these issues head on.