100 years of women in law
December 2019 will mark 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force and enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates. It allowed women to take up positions of power and authority across the UK, and whilst it is certainly something to be celebrated, it is often mistaken as the only barrier removal needed for women to enter the legal and political fields.
Women had to wait until 1928 to vote on the same terms as men. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, whilst allowing women to take roles on benches and in courtrooms, meant they were still forbidden from joining the Civil Service. They couldn’t take up a place until 1946. Women were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until 1958 as life peers, and 1963 as hereditary peers. Whilst women were allowed to sit on juries, a clause stated judges were able to have single-sex juries if the case or evidence ‘justified’ it. This resulted in women jurors being excluded from sexual or domestic violence cases. This wasn’t rectified until 1972.
Of course, things are very different now to 1972, but the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was in many ways, just the first stepping stone in equality for women in politics and law. But what of today?
As of October 2019, there are about 479,000,000 results on Google for the search term “Women in law UK”. There are events, organisations, campaigns, networking opportunities and awards. There certainly seems to be a lot more resource available to women in the sector, and certainly much less political and legal barriers to women entering the space.
Interestingly in 2017, although women accounted for 60% of people entering the legal profession, of the 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% of them were women. Because of this discrepancy, The Law Society acknowledges that one of their key aims is to support women in positions of authority and leadership and regularly runs campaigns.
Following the gender pay gap issue in 2018, many law firms refused to publish their reports, and those that did, most did not include Partner pay data, causing rumours that the gender pay gap is too large to be acceptable across the sector.
There are often reports in the media of unfair working conditions and obstacles to promotion for working mothers, and accounts and testimonials of sexual harassment that even in the #MeToo movement, is shocking and yet unchallenged.
It’s not all bad news though. There are many positives occurring across the sector - more than a third of legal firms in the UK have signed up to the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion charter, there has been a definitive shift towards a focus on Work/Life balance and many firms are offering flexible working to accommodate working parents, and benefits seem to focus more on family.
The First 100 Years organisation, set up by the Law Society to chart women’s progress from 1919 to the modern-day, is a dedicated resource for women across the UK and has set up awards and functions to help acknowledge and support women in the sector.
There is no doubt the rights of women have developed hugely since 1919, however, there is still work to be done. Real commitment across all legal practices need to be made to improve diversity and remove structural barriers to women in law. Sexism and discriminatory practices, unfortunately, do still exist, and until these operational blockades are removed, we can’t hope to see true equality for women in the sector. That’s why we work with clients to address the needs of those joining their firm, to ensure there is support and that our clients are demonstrating a dedication to diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their firms. We listen to our female candidates and ensure we match them with the right firm that will respect the work they deliver and the contribution they make.
If you’re currently looking for your next role, but are wary of undesirable cultures and workplace barriers, get in touch with us for an honest and confidential chat about current opportunities.