Women in Law: International Women’s Day
Today marks International Women’s Day and this blog summarises the evolution of women in law.
The progression of women in law has certainly not been a straightforward path.
How it Started
Law was traditionally a male-only industry. Women were permitted to study law but not to graduate at many universities from the late 1800’s, with UCL being the first university to admit women on an equal footing to men in 1878. Eliza Orme became the first woman to obtain a law degree in the UK in 1888, but she was not permitted to practice officially. Despite being able to take a law degree, women were effectively barred from participating in the legal profession and practicing in law in the UK until the introduction of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which enabled women to participate fully in civil life. Before this time, women were unable to become magistrates, jurors, barristers or solicitors, simply because of being female.
In 1922 Carrie Morrison made history by becoming the country’s first female solicitor and Helena Normanton the first practising female barrister. By 1931 there were only around 100 female solicitors. Rigid social norms meant that by 1969, there were still only 750 women with practicing certificates in England and Wales, and even fewer barristers. The woman’s place was largely seen as in the home and it was not widely socially accepted for women to practise in the industry. Until the 1980’s, it was generally assumed that female solicitors would leave their jobs when they got married or had children.
Taking this into account, it is therefore all the more remarkable that in the current day there are actually more practising female solicitors than men. Female lawyers have made up over 50% of new entrants to the profession since 1993 and it is therefore clear that women now see law as a very attractive career, highlighting how far society has progressed in the last three decades alone.
Women such as Baroness Hale, who served as President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from 2017 until her retirement in 2020, have brought female lawyers to the forefront of our attention in recent times.
However, women still remain under-represented at the highest echelons of the industry. Research has shown a sharp drop-off in the number of women in positions the further the progression up the legal ranks. Whilst there are more women practicing law in the UK than men, only about a fifth of senior lawyers (or partners) are female. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Research shows that it’s not that women aren’t performing well, the success of women who go up for partnership is higher, but the issue is that there aren’t more women going for it in the first place. The introduction of more flexible working and the ability to work from home, more pertinent than ever during the current COVID-19 crisis, may help to ease some of the juggle between work and family life and ease this balance, but only time will tell.
It’s clear that whilst indisputably we have come a long way in the last century, we still have a long way to go.