It has been just over one hundred years since the first woman, Carrie Morrison, was admitted to the roll of solicitors by the Law Society of England and Wales. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recently reported that across firms in England and Wales, 52% of solicitors were female, with government statistics indicating that in the wider Judiciary, Women constitute 39% of barristers and 76% of Chartered Legal Executives. We have undoubtedly come a long way, but the journey still has distance to cover.
A Century of Legislative Reform
In 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was introduced which permitted women to take their solicitor examinations and qualify. It was then over half a century later that the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, ensuring that employers paid men and women equally and five years afterwards the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it unlawful for women to be treated less favourably because of their sex. In the same year the Employment Protection Act 1975 prevented women from discrimination for being pregnant and taking time to care for their baby. Comparatively recently, the Equality Act 2010 and subsequent Regulations introduced in 2017 provided a platform for salary information for male and female employees to be published, with the visibility of the information aimed at preventing discrimination and gender pay disparity in the workplace.
An Ongoing Change in Culture
The century of legislative reform in many regards mirrors a wider cultural shift borne of protest, advocacy and increasingly enlightened attitudes. From Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement to Simone de Beauvoir providing thoughtful attack on the idea that women belonging in secondary, passive roles to the growing emergence of prominent, strong and outspoken figures from Germaine Greer and Margaret Thatcher to Karen Brady and Jacinda Ardern, all have helped challenge preconceptions and misconceptions about the ability, capacity and talent of women to take the most important and leading roles in business, culture and politics.
Women in Law
The legal sector is undoubtedly offering a career pathway that attracts more and more women. Recent data from UCAS shows that twice as many women are applying for law courses than men – some 103,575 applicants, compared with 51,865 male. At JB Leitch, the composition of our team reflects this with 71% our Associates and Senior Associates and 68% of our overall staff being female, spanning every facet of our firm from senior management to apprentice roles. Women are integral to our leadership and culture and with female colleagues presenting a range of talks about their lives, careers and experiences of being a women in the sector, we are proud that we offer a working environment that is progressive and inclusive. As positive as progress is however, it is clear that there is still more to be done in the wider sector until gender equality becomes the norm – and by default – no longer an issue.
A key consideration is flexibility and accountability. With the pandemic illustrating that conventional working patterns can be adjusted, the ability to take into consideration the responsibilities that women have around work is important. It is no longer a matter of flexibility as an incentive – it is more accepted as the norm - and could be a core element in the recruitment and ultimately retention of female talent in the industry.
One other element to consider is ownership. Whilst there is evidence to suggest that female leadership both contributes to greater success and serves as an inspiration to female colleagues in their career aspirations, in the UK only a third of partners are women – a disparity when considering that over half of solicitors are female. In some regards the structure of firms may be firmly established and locked in tradition, but with greater equality comes greater expectation and the need for firms of all complexions to adapt and to evolve.
Zoe Hornby, Marketing Executive at JB Leitch