Deputy EditorSolicitors Journal

Women in law: learning from the legal pioneers

Women in law: learning from the legal pioneers

With more women than men entering the profession, the battle must move to representation at higher echelons and to unravelling a system not fit for purpose, says Dana Denis-Smith

This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act becoming law, paving the way for women to become lawyers. 

Considerable progress has been made over the subsequent 100 years, with the number of women entering the law now outnumbering men, but female representation at the top still lags significantly behind. 

According to the Law Society, women now make up 50.1 per cent of practising solicitors, yet only represent 28 per cent of partners in private practice, with the figures for equity partners even lower. 

Statistics from the Bar Standards Board show that only 14.8 per cent of QCs are women. When I first started looking at the history of women in the law, I found that the picture was patchy.

The information was not easy to find and many in the law did not understand that not long ago it was simply not possible for a woman to enter the legal profession. 

Portrayals of early women in law were negative and grounded in victimhood. This narrative was not going to be a driver for change. 

It is important that we understand the historical context of how we got where we are today if we want to remove barriers. With the First 100 Years I wanted to provide a solid foundation for the future. 

Diversity is not just about what you can see in terms of the race or gender of individuals, it can be found in the details of the challenges and struggles they have experienced to get where they are today.

Overcoming challenges

Unravelling the stories of pioneering women means we can understand the roots of their success. Who were their role models? What support did they get? What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? 

In their stories are lessons for both men and women alike. One hundred years ago, the battle was for participation in our legal system.

With more women than men now entering the profession, what we now need is equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving the same remuneration. 

Women are still not sufficiently represented at equity level, and when they are, they are not paid as much as their male counterparts. 

I want to see women using history to empower themselves. We should be demanding equal representation and pay. 

We are no longer asking permission to be let into the partnership or to leadership positions – as we look to the future there should be an expectation that there is room at the top for any woman capable of doing the job. 

Our profession needs to look at what is holding us back. Are we doing enough to combat unconscious bias and do we adequately recognise the achievements of women? 

So often I hear both women and men discussing what is lacking in a woman’s skillset rather than focusing on the positives.

Culturally we seem to need our female leaders to be perfect and at the top of their game, while mediocre men climb the ranks all the time by simply being capable of doing the job. 

We need to understand the impact of the industrial levels of inflexibility present in many law firms to the progression of women. The larger the firm, the greater the problem.

Whether it’s the traditional partnership structure, the focus on the billable hour or the inability of firms to accommodate both women and men with caring responsibilities, action is needed. 

We need to start from the top, unravelling the practices and structures that do not work for women. We must interrogate working conditions to see if they are fit for purpose rather than the expectation that women should fit into them. 

In this centenary year I would like to see us celebrate the hard-won progress of the last 100 years and the stories of those legal pioneers that are so vital in providing a solid, positive platform for the future. 

But we also need to persist in removing the barriers to women’s progress still built into the legal profession so that women embarking on their careers now can expect to be successful whatever path they choose to take.

Dana Denis-Smith is a non-practising solicitor and founder of The First 100 Years project

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