The new hall of fame
A new generation of female role models are recognised for achieving gender equality in law, says Dana Denis-Smith
In November 2019, the First 100 Years project recognised the achievements of women across the legal profession with our Inspirational Women in Law awards. These awards celebrated the trailblazers of their generation and those driving much-needed changes in the legal sector. For women to make progress, and for gender equality to become a reality in the legal profession, we need more women out there, leading by example and being publicly recognised for their efforts. When I founded The First 100 Years project, I was motivated by the need to shine a light on the stories of women lawyers from a range of backgrounds, looking at how they made it to the top of the profession. At that time there was no clear history of women in the law and portrayals of the early pioneers were negative and grounded in victimhood.
So many women working in the profession over the last 100 years have not had senior women lawyers to look up to, but that is changing. We are now seeing more women becoming role models for a new generation. This is not just about hearing from the ‘superhero’ women out there, but about revealing the hard work being undertaken by both women and men who are championing change.
This year we asked our award nominees what a role model looked like to them. They spoke of the boldness to do things others hadn’t thought possible; of resilience and the bravery to fight against adversity and to challenge the status quo. Our lifetime achievement winner, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, has been a campaigner for equality in the legal profession for decades, writing and broadcasting on the discrimination women have faced both as lawyers and as users of the law. She played a key role in the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Her book, Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice, criticising the way women were treated by the British justice system, led to a number of key reforms for women.
Our nominees thought role models should be uncompromisingly authentic and visible in both their organisations and the profession as a whole. They should lead by example – if they talk about the importance of work-life balance they need to live those values too. Alison Eddy, winner of this year’s Champion Award, is managing partner of Irwin Mitchell’s London office and a leading advocate of promoting a healthy work-life balance and flexible working. She has helped to create a female-friendly environment at Irwin Mitchell and has supported the firm’s work on gender equality, regularly running initiatives and events to support women. Fourteen years ago, she was the first partner with team members working flexibly.
Now, 43 per cent of the firm’s employees work flexibly. This demonstrates what a difference it can make as more women get into senior roles and change the culture where they work, using their positions as role models to shape both the law and the legal profession. There is a new hall of fame emerging, with women succeeding in all areas of the law and pressing for the changes needed to ensure women are able to thrive. As we look forward to the next 100 years of women in the law, these role models show that gender equality in the legal profession is possible.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk