Attaining Equality in the Legal Profession

Hot in the news recently has been the topic of the inequality of men and women in regards to pay. It has come to light that a gender pay gap still exists in some professions in our country, and this is an issue we need to resolve.

Even though we have a little way to go, we must remember how far we’ve come as women. Just a few decades ago, women were denied basic rights that we take for granted now, such as being allowed to vote, owning property or working in certain professions.  

An interesting story from the 1870s seems quite apt for retelling now. Absurdly, women in Wisconsin, America were not allowed to practice law in those days. As a Wisconsin Chief Justice named Edward Ryan famously expressed: “We cannot but think the common law wise in excluding women from the profession of the law. The profession enters largely into the well-being of society; and to be honourably filled and safely to society, exacts the devotion of life. The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race, and for the custody of the homes of the world… All life-long callings of women, inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of the law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.” 

We are sure many of you would have a few things to say about that if presented with such a statement these days! Luckily the legal profession has caught up with the times, and many women are enjoying great careers in law in America, in the UK and across the world. According to the Law Society, of the 175,160 Solicitors admitted to the roll in 2016, 49.8% were men and 50.2% were women. Currently, there are far more women than men training to be Solicitors. In the present academic year, 12,060 (67.5%) of UK law degree Students are female, and 5,795 (32.5 per cent) are male.

We are aware that Legal Secretaries tend to be predominantly female. However, it’s the presence of women in the higher positions that comes into question. In the UK, there seems to be a lack of female judges according to a report published by the Council of Europe, which stated that our nation has one of the lowest percentages of women among professional judges. The figure was 30% whilst the Europe-wide average was 51%. Also, a survey performed by Chambers Student showed that whilst there is generally a higher percentage of female trainees and associates in law firms, there is a smaller percentage of women holding partner positions. Saying that, many of the professional legal bodies of this country have women in top positions, such as the Law Society, CILEx, NALP and our very own ILSPA!

So what can we can we deduce from this? Women’s standing in the legal profession and in general has certainly come a long way over the past century, but we have yet to achieve total equality in our pay and in the positions we hold. Going back to the statement made by Chief Justice Ryan, we wonder whether: Is there still an underlying bias against women due to the need for them to raise children? 

Looking around us, we see that women are stronger than ever – capable of simultaneously holding professional roles, looking after their families and running their households. Women have the ability to be professional, to multitask, to care for others and to have empathy. Whilst attributes like empathy used to be seen as a weakness, it is becoming clearer in our society that this quality is needed for successful relationships in and out of the workplace. It’s only a matter of time until women will be wholly and truly recognised for their amazing capabilities.