Dana Denis-Smith: Why We Must Not Succumb to “Diversity Fatigue”

Published 16th September 2016

In September 2016, Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years project, introduced the project to employees of a large multinational banking organisation. Her speech at the presentation was titled, Why We Must Not Succumb to “Diversity Fatigue’.

The First 100 Years project started with a photograph. I happened to glance it as I browsed the alumni magazine of a top City law firm. It resonated with me very strongly and I found myself returning to that photograph over and over. The year it was taken – 1982 – together with the one central, lonely woman in it, surrounded by a group of 50 or so men attending a black tie event – seemed to me to capture the essence not just of the times in which it was taken – a time when women were only just starting to be allowed to get a mortgage or buy a drink in the pub without a man. To me, it went beyond that – it was a visible sign of a quiet revolution – in which women’s participation in the workplace was finally elevating them to the top ranks, previously only open to men. Although alone in that group photograph, she was no longer alone in the legal profession.

I didn’t know then that the woman in the middle of this group was called Dorothy; her name was not mentioned in the capture below it. But I remember clearly that fateful November Saturday, in 2013, when I tweeted the photograph to the law firm and asked who was the woman in the middle. I felt totally swept away by this discovery and embarked on a journey – a little bit like in the children’s novel, I found myself on a winding yellow brick road, looking for the story behind the picture, and trying to understand not just how did it feel to be the only one, but where did it all begin?

Why is this important that we should understand the full journey of women in the professions? Because it makes us being here today more relevant and explains why you should know about the First 100 Years – because without understanding the past we have no context for our analysis of the present, and we can be misguided and [may] even celebrate too soon. American political figure Mario Cuomo once said: “we are here to remind ourselves where we come from and to claim the future for ourselves and for our children”. His phrase captures perfectly the mission of the project.

So, where did women in the professional workplace come from? It’s a number again – and luckily an easy one to remember. 1919. It was in that year that a parliamentary act was passed. It started with a clear statement: “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation.” The Sexual Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 laid the foundation for all equality legislation that was to come in the 20th Century and made it possible for women to enter the professions – to be lawyers, accountants, members of the jury and so on. Virginia Woolf called it ‘the sacred year of 1919’ but there were many critics of the Act – for not being more radical. For example, the rights for married women were still viewed as a property of the husband. One must remember that rape in marriage was only criminalized in the 1990s.

But despite the Act, the ranks of the professions didn’t swell with women until much later – when the first generations started to graduate from universities in larger numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The early women in the professions were often forced to work by losing their husbands and having to take over their practices. So after the initial enthusiasm of the 1920s, aided by the hard facts of a post-war economic slump which needed women to step into the jobs of their brothers or fathers who died in WWI, women took a back step again from the workplace returning for the war effort during WWII briefly. But the aftermath of WWII couldn’t be more different than that of WWI – the rebuilding of the country led to policies around full employment for men and few opportunities for women. Being a married woman who worked reflected badly on the husband’s means and ability to be a breadwinner so it was widely unfashionable. So often even if women started their careers in a professional job, they would renounce on marriage or, quite often, would lose their job upon marrying.

Professional organisations were slow adopters of women – the Law Society created a special women’s wing in its building in 1961 – although it sounded like a caring thing to do, I am sure women would have much preferred to have been allowed to walk freely anywhere in the Law Society building. Their access to the reading room was restricted until 1977 – that’s 55 years after the first 4 women entered the profession in 1922. I found that men often did not set out to hinder a woman’s progress at work – more often than not, it was comfort and a ‘no need to rock the boat’ attitude that maintained the status quo and kept women out. It is certainly what we discovered during the project’s time to date. When asked who is behind the lawyer they are today, men often cite a female teacher or a woman mentor in their first job as the determining factor – not only of choosing their career, but also guiding them to succeed. But there is little visibility of these female role models.

First 100 Years set out to change that and has committed to make 100 video stories built around female role models across the profession – from Baroness Hale, Cherie Blair, whom we are filming later today, or lesser known figures such as Joyce Gutteridge, the first legal advisor to the Foreign Office. The project has a distinct timeline – running up to the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Act – after which the whole archive will be donated to the nation to be used as an educational resource. I was also keen that the tone of the project was accessible beyond the legal profession – this isn’t an academic project. It is a project that tells engaging and inspiring stories of the many women in law – famous or not – but that can appeal to those that would have never considered a path in the legal professions. But as we tell the personal stories of these women, we discover there is universality in their advice that transcends the legal profession – they are about how to forge a path as a woman in the workplace, how to navigate challenges and how to ensure you set your own definition of success and achieve it.

Cuomo also said that we ‘campaign in poetry, and govern in prose’. And this is so true with diversity. Dame Linda Dobbs, who was the first black High Court Judge, put it very eloquently: “diversity fatigue is the greatest challenge at the moment. People think we have done diversity, but actually we are not yet in the mainstream when it comes to diversity”.

But I must conclude with Baroness Hale, the most senior woman lawyer in the land and also the only woman on the Supreme Court. She said to us: “I was the second woman in the chambers that I joined, and I shall forever be grateful to the first, because she welcomed me with open arms. She didn’t put the others off me, whereas it has been known sometimes for the first woman not to want to be joined by any more. I was the second woman in the Court of Appeal, and again, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss didn’t pull up the drawbridge behind her at all.” We must remember the pioneers but become pioneers ourselves as the pursuit of equality goes on.

As part of the First 100 Years’ commitment to celebrate women pioneers in law, we have launched the Inspirational Women in Law Award in our search for 10 women in law that will become the trailblazers of their generation, driving the change we need to see in the legal sector to ensure that gender equality becomes a reality. Nominate someone by midnight today!