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100 years of women in the legal profession: #balanceforbetter

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Posted by Sarah Perry on 08 March 2019

Sarah Perry - Dispute Resolution - Managing Partner
Sarah Perry Managing Partner

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #balanceforbetter is focused on raising awareness that a balanced world is a better world. It seems like a statement of the blindingly obvious – in a world where numbers of men and women are roughly equal, it makes perfect sense to expect both sexes to contribute equally both at work and home, and have their efforts equally rewarded.

However, in many areas of life, the ideal and the actual remain as ships passing in the night. The legal profession has been no better - or worse - than other areas of business and, indeed, in the last 25 years has shown a greater willingness to work towards achieving a genuine gender balance. But it is the stubborn discrepancy between the number of women entering the profession and those reaching senior positions that has prompted many in the profession to acknowledge that ‘something has to be done’.

The First 100 Years – a history project set up to chart the progress of women in law – has a fascinating, if occasionally dispiriting time line. The first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in the UK (Scotland) was in 1920 (after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919) but it was another two years before a woman was admitted as a solicitor in England. Reading through the list of illustrious females who broke down the doors of what had been a closed shop (an attempt in 1912 to persuade the Law Society to accept women as solicitors was met with derision), one can only admire their fortitude. Many universities were slow to grant degrees to women (Cambridge as late as 1947), the first female King’s Counsel was appointed in 1948, the first woman High Court judge in 1965, the first female law professor in 1970 and, at last, the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, was appointed in 2009. These women were all trailblazers but what is significant is that their success has not ushered in significant numbers of women to the top echelons of law.

100 years later

So, 100 years after women were able to qualify as lawyers, progress has been made but it could be much, much better. A glance at the SRA’s diversity statistics reveals an interesting story: it is the larger firms that appear to be struggling with the gender-balance issue, for example, the larger the firm, the smaller, it would appear, the percentage of female partners. Although smaller firms are by no means perfect, women represent, on average, 37% of partners (compared with 29% in large firms).One explanation for the difference may be that smaller firms have more to lose financially if they allow female talent to go unrecognised and unrewarded.

There is no doubt that a diverse workplace is a more creative and more productive one. However, there is evidence that some businesses (no doubt including law firms) are simply ticking the diversity box as suggested by Grant Thornton’s 2018 women in business report that notes that, although the number of boards with at least one woman has increased from 66% to 75%, the proportion of women on boards overall has declined. Likewise, those businesses with various policies in place to promote equality are not necessarily the most diverse. The report goes on to say that it is only those businesses that genuinely recognise the benefits of gender-balanced business will succeed in creating one - #balanceforbetter.

So what can we do?  

It certainly makes no sense at all to invest in training female lawyers, only to sit back and watch the rate of attrition gather speed as they reach critical points in their careers. Clearly there will be lawyers, both men and women, who will decide to pursue alternative paths and others who will make a conscious decision to have career breaks while they raise a family or have other caring responsibilities. But for those women who wish to progress their career within private practice, firms have to ‘lean in’ and support them if they want the business to thrive. 

Getting rid of unconscious bias is the first, and probably most difficult, step to take. Many firms, including this one, have mandatory training in place to encourage objective, independent assessment. We need active recognition that flexible working – for both sexes - does work and does not reflect a lack of commitment. We must acknowledge that standards of behaviour and language should be common for both men and women (ambitious man = pushy woman – we all recognise those labels). We must understand that men need to be part of this conversation, and both sexes must be encouraged to call out unacceptable behaviour or bias. We wouldn’t put up with it at home so why should we at work? However, underpinning any positive action must be a genuine commitment from the senior leadership team that a diverse, inclusive, balanced workforce is a business imperative.

Gender-balance

The legal profession, founded as it is on the principles of integrity, trust and justice, should be a beacon for opportunity, regardless of age, sex, colour or creed. The first rule in problem-solving is to recognise that there is a problem in the first place – and the statistics show that more and more firms are doing so and are proactively addressing the issue of gender-balance. There is still a long road to travel as more revelations about inappropriate behaviour of (mainly male) senior lawyers towards their (mainly female) junior colleagues emerge, revealing unforgivably antediluvian attitudes among a generation of men who were being educated when the equality movement was gaining momentum in the seventies and eighties. These attitudes will change, must change, but it is critical that senior management believes in the intrinsic value of a gender-balanced profession if women – and men - are going to have long, successful and fulfilling careers in the law.

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About the author

Sarah Perry

Managing Partner

Sarah is the firm's Managing Partner and head of the firm's highly regarded dispute resolution group.

Sarah Perry

Sarah is the firm's Managing Partner and head of the firm's highly regarded dispute resolution group.

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