On 23 December 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed, which made it possible for women to qualify as barristers or solicitors for the first time. Determined and inspirational women seized the hard-won opportunity they had long waited to practice as solicitors.
The 1919 act was a major step forward. As 23 December draws closer and we mark 100 years since women’s entry into the legal profession, it is extraordinary to think that if I had been born just a generation or two earlier, I would not have been legally allowed to qualify as a solicitor for no other reason than by virtue of being a woman. Considerable progress has been made since then, but it’s worth taking a pause to reflect on the year-long celebrations and to consider opportunities for achieving true equality within the legal profession in the next 100 years.
2019 saw a huge amount of activity in the Law Society with a key focus on Christina Blacklaws’ Women in Leadership in Law project. The key driver behind this project was the lack of women in leadership roles. This initiative saw over 200 women roundtables, male champion roundtables and toolkits, culminating in an international symposium where the Women in Law Pledge was launched. The toolkits offered an opportunity for activism in our day-to-day decision-making, empowering women in law to be change-makers and leaders, while also engaging men in a positive, supportive way.
The Women Lawyers Division recently hosted an evening with Lady Hale, the Supreme Court’s first female President, who gave the keynote to mark the centenary. Lady Hale shared her experiences as a senior woman in the legal profession and her journey to the Supreme Court. Her key message was that there should be more egalitarian distribution of roles in households and that the ‘baby questions’ shouldn’t be faced by women alone. Male allies have long supported the struggle for gender equality. When mothers change to a flexible work pattern, they are likely to face a ‘flexibility stigma’ and the perception that they are contributing less. The most effective way to tackle this stigma, is to encourage more men to take on part-time and flexible work.
Law firms around the country held their own centenary celebrations and indeed my firm, Moore Blatch, joined forces with No5 Barristers’ Chambers to mark the 100 year occasion. The event attracted a cross-section of barristers and solicitors, with a panel discussion across a range of issues from flexible working, diversity in leadership to menopause, prompting thought-provoking questions from the audience and practical suggestions for overcoming challenges and solving problems. The keynote speech from corporate trainer Hannah Beko focused on being your authentic self in the workplace. We also explored how law societies and bar associations more widely, can improve gender diversity and parity in the legal profession, leaving our audience with lots of ideas about how they can contribute to lasting change.
Never has a light shined so brightly on our trailblazers and the pioneering female ‘firsts’ that paved the way for many, than today. As a newly appointed member of the Women Lawyers Division committee, with initiatives like the Women in Law Pledge, I am excited about the future and I look forward to working with colleagues, the Law Society and peers in the sector to ensure the changes we all want are achieved. As we pass the baton from the first century to the next , it is crucial to look forward to the next 100 years of women in law, to ensure that we all do our part to see equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving equal remuneration. A fairer and equitable workplace builds a fairer and more equitable society – something that we all, as professionals and individuals, reap the benefits of.