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Dana Denis-Smith

Trustee / CEO, Spark21

Quotation Marks
The hard work cannot stop and the profession must continue to take action at every level to drive change

The Challenge Ahead

The Challenge Ahead


The profession must redouble efforts on equality or risk turning back the clock, argues Dana Denis-Smith

During the 2019 centenary of women in law, we proudly unveiled an artwork commissioned by our predecessor project the First 100 Years. The artwork, which depicts female legal pioneers, now forms the centrepiece of courtroom two at the Supreme Court, where the first majority female court (three out of five justices) sat in October 2018. It’s the first piece hanging in the Supreme Court to depict a woman. Yet as we begin 2021, there is a real danger that in a year’s time we will find ourselves with not a single female judge sitting on the highest court in the land. The news of Lady Black’s retirement from the Supreme Court and that of Lady Arden within the year, leaves the possibility that in 2022 – 100 years after we saw women qualifying as lawyers for the first time – we will no longer have a female Supreme Court judge.

That we are in this position is a reminder that, while so much progress has been achieved, we cannot be complacent. The hard work cannot stop, and the profession must continue to take action at every level to drive change. The Supreme Court understands that the lack of women and of those from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds is an unacceptable position. It has said that diversity will come into play when choosing between two applicants of ‘equal merit’. I would like to see it thinking more creatively about direct appointments, whether from the bar or academia – potentially considering quotas to get us where we need to be. Visibility of women at the top is hugely important. We need to see women at the highest levels of the profession, whether in senior leadership positions, at the top of the judiciary or as legal experts. This is why we launched the Heilbron Lectures at the end of last year, a lecture series named after legendary legal pioneer Rose Heilbron QC.

The annual lectures – the first of which saw Kirsty Brimelow QC speak on the response to covid-19 and what it means for individual human rights – champion rising female legal experts, acting as a counterbalance to the existing male-dominated lecture format. Like our inspirational Women in Law awards, this is about ensuring women from all areas of the profession are visible; known for their legal expertise; and seen as role models for aspiring female lawyers. Having more women at the top also helps set the culture at legal businesses, so that the reality of women’s day-today lives is better reflected in working practices. Last year saw pandemic lockdowns that had a disproportionate impact on women’s working lives.

They are more likely than men to pick up the additional responsibilities associated with educating and caring for their children; and more likely to work in positions that have been furloughed or made redundant. This direct impact of the pandemic, along with the hiatus on compulsory gender pay gap reporting which has unwittingly given the green light to businesses to put the issue to the bottom of the pile, threatens to turn back the clock on equality. One huge positive to take away from 2020, however, is that the profession has shown how quickly it can adapt and change.

Many resisted flexible working for years, yet now homeworking is the norm. Not only does this help women and working parents, it also shows how much change is possible and how perceived barriers can be swept away when circumstances require it. So let’s look at what else we can do to improve equality; reset the culture of our workplaces to focus on outputs rather than time spent in the office; and look at the career paths we offer to take into account shifting priorities throughout our lives. Let’s ensure our businesses are transparent, reporting on their gender pay gaps and working to close them, setting targets and having diversity front of mind – from graduate recruitment to filling positions on senior management teams. As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s redouble our efforts and not lose sight of how much we still need to do to achieve equality. 

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