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Reflections on 100 years of progress for International Women's Day

06 March 2019

Our president Christina blogs that International Women's Day is a chance to celebrate and remember the pioneers who have gone before us, and to take stock of all that has been achieved. 

It is a time to foster ambition for ourselves and the next generations about what it is we want for the future.

2019 is a historic year for the legal profession. It marks the 110th anniversary of the inaugural International Women's Day, as well as the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, the legislation which first recognised women as 'persons' in England and Wales and enabled us to join the legal profession.

Legend has it that the first four women who qualified as solicitors: Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes, competed in a running race. The woman who most quickly ran the length of Chancery Lane in London and through the doors of the Law Society would have the privilege of being the first female solicitor in England and Wales. This momentous title was duly awarded to the swift-footed Carrie Morrison.

Although highly unusual, the picture of a group of first-class Cambridge graduates being required to gather up their skirts and race one another down a cobbled street in stiff-neck Edwardian Britain is somewhat amusing. On the other hand, it gives an insight into an unnecessary barrier which women of the time faced.

The legal profession is very different to 1919. We are diverse, innovative and global, and still in 2019 barriers to success remain. Although women make up 50.2% of practising certificate holders, they are not making it to the top in same numbers as men. Of the 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% of partners are women.

I do not believe that this disparity is because women are not qualified for senior roles, nor because they do not want to take them on, but because unnecessary barriers are in the way. As part of the Law Society's Women in Leadership in Law project, our extensive body of research has identified that unconscious bias is perceived to be the biggest obstacle which women face in their careers. Other identified barriers to progress include unacceptable work-life balance and the male-orientation of tradition routes to leadership.

The solution to overcoming these barriers is not to change the women to fit the system, a system which was not created with them in mind, but to reconsider and adapt the processes which are in place at every level of the profession to help level the playing-field. By identifying the solutions which are preventing talent from reaching the top, we can take action to meaningfully address them.

As part of the Women in Leadership in Law project we have produced two toolkits to help groups and individuals to take action in their firms and organisations. One has been designed for women and the other for men, and the solutions in both can be used interchangeably. I believe that men – as champions for change - have a key role to play in the action needed for levelling the playing-field, after all they do make up the majority of senior leaders in the profession, in most professions actually.

My ambition for the profession is one in which no one is limited from fulfilling their potential by arbitrary and unnecessary barriers, such as those faced by the formidable Carrie Morrison and her colleagues. On International Women's Day this year, the Law Society will launch its report on barriers and solutions to progress in the profession following the feedback of over 3,000 solicitors from around the world.

On Thursday 20 and Friday 21 June this year we will be hosting our headline event The power of gender equality to transform the business of law: an international symposium in London. This two-day conference is designed to bring together professionals from across the legal profession and other sectors to identify steps needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace, which is crucial to boost growth, innovation and productivity. It will also be the Law Society's celebration of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 as well as the successes of women in the law globally.

I hope that you will be able to join us.

Explore our Women in Leadership in Law and download the toolkit

Join the Women Lawyers Division

Follow our president Christina Blacklaws on Twitter

Explore the Women Lawyers Division networks and support

Find out about the members of our Women Lawyers Division Committee

Solicitors or their staff can call our free and confidential Pastoral care helpline 020 7320 5795 if they are experiencing personal, financial, professional or employment difficulties. Staffed Mon-Fri 9 -17:00

Tags: president | International Womens Day

About the author

Christina Blacklaws is the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, a council member for the Women Lawyers Division and the director of innovation at Cripps LLP

Follow Christina on Twitter

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