Legally women: how women are excelling in the law sector

Over 100 years have passed since the historic case of Bebb vs Law Society; a ruling which upheld the ban of women working as legal professionals due to their failure to fall into the definition of ‘persons’. Considering the evolution of attitudes that has taken place in the last century, it’s hard to imagine a time in which such a ruling could have been passed. If Gwyneth Bebb could take a look into the modern legal profession, it would likely be unrecognisable to her and the other women who brought the challenge forward to the Court of Appeal in 1913.

Fortunately, much has changed since then. In the aftermath of the Great War, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force, allowing women of all walks of life to pass their law exams and enter into the profession just like their male counterparts. From the moment the act took effect, the flood gates burst, giving way to a wave of pioneering women eager to contribute their skills to a practice they had so long been denied.

Today, the contribution of these trailblazers to the sector is hard to miss. In 2017, women accounted for nearly half of all solicitors and more than two-thirds of law students were female. No one recognises the valuable input that women have had to the profession more than Dana Denis-Smith, journalist, City lawyer and founder of the First 100 Years project. Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project was started to celebrate and inspire future generations of female lawyers. Powered by the charity Spark21, the First 100 Years team is now producing a digital museum of 100 videos detailing the achievements and obstacles overcome by the many female role models who have left their mark on the legal profession.

Many of the stories on the site are unfamiliar to most; they detail the struggles that women experienced in challenging the status quo to promote equality in the law sector. It’s for this reason that projects such as these are important: they highlight the untold tales of those who helped to shape society into what it is today and celebrate the determination they showed in overcoming a number of obstacles. From Madge Easton Anderson becoming the first female solicitor in the UK in 1920 to Baroness Hale being named as President of the Supreme Court, it’s clear that we have come a long way in the space of a century.

Characterised by success and triumph, it’s hard not to be inspired by the journey that female lawyers have made in leading the charge for gender equality. However, while traditional firms can be proud of the significant strides they have made in recent years, the story of women in law is yet to reach the happy ending it deserves. Despite significant progress,  the proportion of female partners in the top 10 UK law firms is only 18 per cent, according to a 2017 survey by PwC— and only 19 per cent in the next 15 firms. The pay gap further remains a persistent problem in the profession, with the salary discrepancies between male and female lawyers exceeding the national average. 

“Women are thriving and breaking new ground in all areas of our profession,”says Christina Blacklaws,President of the Law Society of England and Wales.

“What we want is for ordinary hard-working women to do as well as ordinary hard-working men, not just the stellar women. Then we’ll have true equality.”

If there’s one thing we can take from the First 100 Years project it’s that the profession benefits from gender diversity. We can only hope that it takes less than another 100 years to fully achieve this.