Diversity must be put at the heart of the legal sector’s future

In 1914, the radical pamphlet ‘Sex Differentiation In Salary’ was published, arguing that women should have equal pay for equal work. Its author was Helen Normanton, who later became the first female barrister in the UK.

Already a history lecturer and qualified teacher, Normanton applied to study law in 1918 at the Middle Temple. She was refused on the grounds of her gender. However, in 1919 a landmark piece of legislation was passed, paving the way for Normanton and countless other women to realise their ambitions of a career in law.

While 2019 will be largely remembered for domestic political turbulence, for lawyers, it marks a milestone we should all celebrate: the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which first allowed women to qualify as lawyers.

As a lawyer myself, I am delighted to reflect on this occasion and the female pioneers of our profession, like Normanton, who were at the vanguard of such a seminal moment in legal history.

And there is no doubt that huge strides have been made in the march to gender equality in our sector. It is thanks to this Act that Elsie Bowerman became the first female barrister to appear at the Old Bailey leading the way so that today, half of the Central Criminal Court’s team of permanent judges are women.

It is thanks to this Act that today there is a ratio of 50:50 male and female solicitors and that in 2017, we witnessed the first woman be sworn in as President of the Supreme Court.

But despite great progress made in the legal sector, the glass ceiling has not yet been smashed. Over 100 years later, Normanton’s idea of equal pay for equal work has not yet been realised. The lack of women in senior positions in the sector and the legal gender pay gap demonstrates the challenge at hand.

And these two issues are inextricably linked. Only 33 per cent of partners in law firms are female, while only 21 per cent of all lawyers are BAME. The prospects of becoming a partner in a law firm are still higher for white males than any other group, while BAME women are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to reaching this seniority.

This is not a talent pipeline problem. According to the Law Society, women continue to be well represented at most levels, including many middle managers in the upper quartile. Yet when it comes to senior executive roles, this isn’t the case. It is little wonder then, that some law firms have reported gender pay gaps of over 60 per cent, and that there is also a ‘bonus’ gap which women are at the wrong end of.

The Bar Council’s own data shows that while there is an almost equal split of male and female pupils studying to be barristers, the Bar struggles with retention of women and their progression. This is reflected by the fact that, despite a small improvement in recent years, only 16 per cent of QCs were women as of December 2018.

This is not, of course, a problem confined to the legal sector alone. The financial services sector and wider professional services sector – and business more generally – needs to do more to ensure women get to the top by removing barriers and creating a truly level playing field. There is a clear business – as well as moral – case for improving diversity.

The legal sector has responded with its own flurry of campaigns, led by inspiring women and men who are calling for change. Take the campaign group, Behind the Gown, which was set up tackle the problems of fair access to work, sexual harassment and keeping women in the Barrister profession.

The campaign, led by female QCs, shone a light on some of the barriers to progress for women. In addition to retention at a senior level, they have argued that reporting work-place issues is difficult because of the ‘close-knit and collegiate character’ of the Bar, alongside its hierarchical structure and the dependency of young barristers on patronage for career progression. Compounding this, they argue, that as a profession of self-employed practitioners, the normal human resources structures of most workplaces cease to exist.

And that is why the City of London Corporation, along with the Law Society and Bar Council, are working hard to tackle this issue head on, so that we can push positive initiatives which will help to remove the existing barriers for women in the sector, change cultural practices and put men and women on equal footing.

We are playing our part by working closely with the Government Equalities Office in an effort to improve women’s progression in the workplace, including in the legal sector.

As part of the partnership, the City Corporation is working with businesses, academics and government stakeholders to identify barriers to workplace progression, explore how City firms can increase the number of women who progress to senior roles, and develop new academic research to be published later in the year.

The Bar Council is running its own ‘next 100 years’ campaign to mark the centenary of women being allowed to practice law – aiming to generate discussion about the challenges women face, as well as highlighting positive initiatives to support women at the Bar. The Law Society and SRA also have targeted action plans at an organisational level to address the gender pay gap.

But it is not just gender diversity that we need to improve. While we strive for more women in the sector, we must also work hard to tackle other inequalities in the sector. That means more BAME lawyers, more LGBTQ+ lawyers, are more lawyers with disabilities.

And, although we still have more to do to ensure equal representation across every echelon of the legal sector, we should remember the lessons of this Act. In 1919, the judiciary had the opportunity to meet the changing expectations of society. To prove that, despite its historic roots, it was willing to adapt and modernise to better represent those it served and to ensure that the UK’s legal services were fit for the modern world.

One hundred years ago, such adaptation enabled women to enter the legal sector, bolstering English jurisprudence, ensuring our judiciary was representative of all those it served. Yet one hundred years later, we are once again asking if we are ‘fit for the modern world’.

Today, as we continue to strive to attain gender equality across all ranks within the legal sector, it is time to adapt again. We should take a moment to reflect on the radical and brave thinking of the likes of Normanton, and continue to follow the road to equality with the same vigour with which those female pioneers began the journey 100 or so years ago.

For by improving diversity in the legal sector, and ensuring it is reflective of the society within which it operates, our world-renowned and trusted legal sector which will continue to go from strength-to-strength for the next century.

Catherine McGuinness, Policy Chair at the City of London Corporation

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