Fairness and the Fairer Sex: A historic battle for equality within the legal sector

Posted in Blog on 5 Mar 2020



In celebration of International Women’s Day on the 8th March we explore the history of women in law, raising awareness of the inspiring actions that enabled progression as well as the key issues that obstructed (and continue to obstruct) women in the pursuit of equality.


The history behind the struggle and of the first pioneers who paved the way for the Female Lawyers of today is rich yet sobering. The UK recently celebrated the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (3 December) which allowed women to exercise public functions, be appointed to or hold civil or judicial offices and posts and enter the civil profession. This meant that women for the first time within the UK could qualify as solicitors and barristers as well as serve on juries.


It must be noted though that the fight did not fight there.* 

Restrictions were still included within the Act, ‘Proviso A’ barred women from the foreign and diplomatic service (in place until 1946), and ‘Proviso B’ permitted the continuation of single sex juries due to “the nature of evidence or issues” (in place until 1972). Consequently, female juries were not commonly selected by judges even for cases such as rape and sexual assault.

The House of Lords also removed the clause which allowed females to sit within its chambers; women were finally able to become life peers in 1958 and hereditary peers in 1963. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be until 1928 for women to be granted electoral equality through universal suffrage. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 lifted restrictions on property ownership and on age, extending the vote to all women aged over 21 years old. 


Despite the continued female domination at entry level within the legal industry, where two-thirds of trainees and 62% of those admitted to the Solicitors Roll in 2018 were women, representation at partnership level and within senior positions continues to look bleak. According to The 2018 Law Society Annual Statistics Report males outstrip females within senior roles by more than 2:1. 


Our 2020 Salary and Benefits Benchmarker found that 64% of females in comparison to 71% of males within the industry had desires to become a business leader, partner or manager within their legal career. It is telling too that in the last four years of data the lowest % of males with these aspirations was still higher than the highest % recorded for females (2016 – 69%). Though, ambitions to reach these top levels on a whole have fallen year on year, regardless of sex, with 2020 being the nadir.


Our research also revealed that of those who had the desire to become a business leader, partner or manager, but felt they couldn’t achieve this feat in their career, only 9% of females and 7% of males indicated they were content at the level they had already achieved. The two most cited progression blockers were: no route available within their present roles/ working for their current employers, and the threat of a compromised work-life balance.


On the subject of work-life balance, the recent surge in modern flexible working patterns, home working and agile working provision is noticeably facilitating cultural changes within the legal landscape. 

Simon Davis President of the Law Society stated:

Creating a more flexible, inclusive working environment gives those with care responsibilities equal opportunities for progression and helps create a more diverse senior leadership.


Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years project has suggested a more radical top-down approach to combating the issue. Her idea centres on implementing quotas for the number of women in equity partner and management positions…

Much of the problem is structural. I would like to see an end to the ‘salaried partner’ position that is so often where senior women find themselves – promoted to partner but without the voting power conferred by being in the equity, giving firms the cover of higher female partner numbers. When women are not adequately represented at the top things do not change.


Experts have also warned against the further permeation of unconscious bias. It was reported by the SRA in 2017 that white males were almost six times more likely to become a partner than women from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.** Additionally, only 5 out of the 490 female QCs in the past 100 years have been BAME women.*** There have also been calls for more women to enter the rapidly growing legal tech scene, which unsurprisingly remains male-dominated (by those of white and Asian ethnicity). If not addressed, AI bias may become prevalent throughout the sector.


This International Women’s Day it is possible to both reflect on the successes of how far the industry has come in the last 100 years yet recognise that more work can be done to achieve true systemic equality for the sexes within the legal profession.

Articles:

* https://first100years.org.uk/the-sex-disqualification-removal-act-1919/

** https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/sra-men-six-times-likely-partners-bame-women

*** https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/feb/04/casual-sexism-is-still-prevalent-how-close-is-the-law-to-gender-equality
 


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