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LCN Says

Recognising the value women bring to the legal field this International Women’s Day

updated on 07 March 2023

Reading time: four minutes

It’s International Women’s Day… why do we celebrate it?

International Women’s Day began in New York on 8 March 1857, when female textile workers marched in protest against unfair working conditions and unequal rights for women. Since then, it’s become a recognised day that occurs each year and is an important day to mark because women still face inequality around the world, in their education, work, pay, voting rights and more. 

We’re lucky in the UK that women are, usually, treated equally compared to other parts of the world. But are we treated equally in the legal profession? You might think that in 2023 we’d have reached equal opportunities and pay considering the fight women put up in all aspects of their lives to be viewed as equal to men but, unfortunately, that isn’t the case. In fact, when we put it into perspective, it’s only been just over 100 years since women won the right to vote.

In 1922, the first woman was admitted as a solicitor in the UK. Thanks to trailblazer Carrie Morrison and those that followed her, alongside the introduction of the 1919 Sex Qualification (Removal) Act, women now have the same opportunity to study and practise law as men in the UK. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 also made progress in achieving pay equality for men and women for doing the same work with the same qualifications and experience.

How does International Women’s Day link to law?

It’s important that people in the legal industry understand and respect this day. By ignoring the gap in equal opportunities and pay, we’re ignoring women’s right to be recognised as equally valuable to the legal field as men. Everybody should be educated on and supportive of what it’s taken for women to be able to practise law today –  we all need to acknowledge the hard work of the pioneers before us, who did something that once seemed impossible.

But we’re still far from achieving complete equality. Since 1991, more than 60% of entrants into the legal field have been women; however, only 36% of women are in senior partner roles in the biggest law firms as of 2022. Also, despite 52% of solicitors being women, only 38.8% of barristers (December 2021) are, compared to an estimated 50.2% of the UK working-age population.

Learn more about women at the Bar with this Feature on ‘Belonging at the Bar: women’s journey from barriers to barristers.’

There are many organisations and societies that aim to uplift and support women in law, such as:

Each of these initiatives empowers, supports and educates those in the legal field to highlight and celebrate women in law – whether they’re law students, apprentices, support staff, solicitors, barristers or in senior positions. It’s great to see individual universities setting up their own women in law societies to inspire the next generation. It’s vital that these organisations have the support of everybody.

What can we do to bridge the gap?

Law firms can sign up to the Women in Law Pledge to show their commitment to creating a more equal legal profession for all. This pledge was launched in partnership with the Bar Council of England and Wales and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives in 2019 to bring equality in law to the forefront of the conversation. However, this is only a voluntary pledge and isn’t a requirement of all law firms. It’s important that law firms are made aware of and encouraged to sign the pledge to enact positive change by setting high-level targets to make a difference for gender equality – and putting in policies and practices to ensure this is done.

The legal profession needs to advocate for the support of the progression of women into senior roles by focusing on retention and promotion. This needs to occur every day, not just on International Women’s Day! That said, by celebrating this day we’re highlighting the need to support, encourage and celebrate all women in law to be successful; however, they see fit.

We should make a conscious effort to celebrate the women who have gotten us this far. Such as (to name a few as there are many):

  • Lady Hale, the first female President of the Supreme Court and the first woman to be appointed as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary at the House of Lords;
  • Stephanie Boyce, the first Black and sixth woman to become president of the Law Society;
  • Dame Linda Dobbs, the first woman of colour to be appointed as a high court judge;
  • Helena and Rose Heilbron, two of the first women appointed King’s Counsel at the Bar (the highest ranking position of a senior barrister in British law); and
  • Dame Catherine Fiona Woolf, the first female partner at a City law firm in 1981.

To learn even more about inspirational women in the legal profession, check out this LCN Says.

This International Women’s Day let’s get out there to attend relevant events, network, uplift women in law, show our appreciation for their contribution to the field and ensure organisations and law firms are aware of the proactive steps they can take to show their commitment to equality in the legal field.

Ella Watts is the founder of Ladies of Law, a platform that aims to empower, connect and support women in law.