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Progress is proving stubbornly slow

Held Back

Held Back

Dana Denis-Smith wants to see all parts of the profession coming together to work on the gender diversity problem

The centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers, was widely commemorated on 23 December 2019. I was delighted to be part of a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour which looked at how much progress has been made – but also how much there is still to achieve.

As part of the centenary celebrations, the First 100 Years project commissioned a survey exploring the reality of life for women working in the profession today. It presented a mixed picture.

The survey of more than 700 solicitors, lawyers:

— Only 2 per cent think there is true equality in the legal profession.

— 80 per cent predict it will take 20 years or more to achieve equality.

— 32 per cent consider that at the current rate of progress it will take 100 years.

— 58 per cent say they, or women they work with, have experienced inappropriate comments from male colleagues relating to their gender.

— Almost half (46 per cent) reported that either they or one of their colleagues had not complained about discrimination for fear of the impact on their careers.


Women at all levels in the profession expressed concerns about discrimination and the predominance of men at the top. The responses showed that 52 per cent agree that it’s still easier for men in their organisations to achieve a promotion than it is for women; while fewer than half of the respondents agree that women are fairly represented in the senior management of their organisation.


Although 54 per cent of those surveyed say they receive encouragement from senior women in the workplace, employers’ failure to accommodate the realities of family life continues to hold women back.

The results revealed:

— 28 per cent say they have considered leaving their job due to a lack of flexible working.

— 39 per cent say their working hours are not compatible with family life.

— Most (60 per cent) believe that working parttime would impact on their career prospects.


However, one partner at a large national firm said: “I am proud to work for a firm which has given me the opportunity to work flexibly and supported me through the route to partnership while working part-time and encouraging me to continue to do so.” Responses from barristers demonstrated a particularly tough working environment for women – but some are getting it right. “Until recently we had an all-female senior leadership team”, said one. “The last two chief executives have been women and women are equally represented on the chamber’s management committee.” Another at the same set commented: “I am fortunate to be in an extraordinarily supportive chambers with strong women at the top. The obstacles that women here face are far more to do with external factors.”


Many organisations in the legal world are succeeding in creating an acceptable working environment in which discrimination and harassment are not tolerated; and family-friendly working patterns are at least a possibility. This is proof it can be done, yet it’s clear that 100 years after women were first permitted to practise – they are still being held back. In some cases, they are being treated unlawfully by employers and many are leaving a profession they feel does not work for them.

Progress is proving stubbornly slow. More women at the top are needed. The culture and attitude towards women that evidently still exists in some parts of the profession means this is not going to happen organically.

Quotas are necessary. Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far. I believe change sometimes needs to be forced. I would like to see all parts of the profession coming together to work on this diversity problem. We need the legal regulators along with the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives to form a profession-wide taskforce to come up with solutions that tackle it head on.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project

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