International Women's Day

Posted in Blog on 8 Mar 2021

Female Solicitors still on a journey to 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 end 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.

Change washing through but work to be done

According to the latest available Law Society figures there are 75,764 women Solicitors with practice certificates up 4.2% on the previous year. Female PC holders outnumber men PC holders by about 4,500, a gap that seems to be growing; since 2015, male PC holder numbers have averaged 1% annual growth whilst the average annual growth of female PCs was nearly four times higher. And while women made up close to two thirds of Trainee Solicitor numbers, and they also outnumber their male counterparts for university acceptances and graduation.

Women now account for 49.4% of PC holders in Private Practice but it is inevitable give the statistic above that they will soon be in the majority, something that has already happened in Commerce and Industry where 55% of PC holders are female. And one would also expect to see an upwards trend in the representation of female PC holders at Partner level where the latest figures suggest women account for less than a third of all Partnership roles. 

This is backed up by the research we recently undertook when building our 2021 Salary and Benefits Benchmarker, 67% of female Solicitors surveyed aspired to Partnership compared to 64% of male Solicitors, and 38% of female Solicitors believed they could achieve their ambitions with their current firm compared to 35% of males. 

The devil is in the detail though, and suggests that there is still some work to be done to drive cultural change and bring about genuine gender equality in the legal sector. According to our research, of those Solicitors who did not aspire to Partnership, 25% of females cited the stress of the additional responsibility as the biggest turn off compared to 15% of males, and 19% pointed to the lack of flexibility and work life balance as opposed to 12% of male Solicitors. And some respondents referenced male dominated Partnership models and even cronyism as a reason they would not be pursuing Partnership ambitions. 

Then look at the numbers that emerged when we lifted the bonnet on home working. 58% of female lawyers believed home working had a positive impact on their productivity compared to 50% of males, with 82% of female Partners stating that home working had a positive or neutral effect on their productivity compared to 75% of males. Why the anomaly then, where 22% of all respondents believed the pandemic home working experience had a negative effect on their career prospects, 26% of all Partners felt the same but nearly a third of all female Partners believed the exercise had a negative effect on their careers compared to just under a quarter of male Partners. 

Change is coming, we are witness to it happening right now but by God the old ways, the customs, the thinking, the practices, the barriers, well the foundations run pretty deep so best not underestimate the push that is needed to topple them over.

Kathryn Riley is the owner and founder of Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment

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