Catherine Dixon Maps the Journey of Women in Law (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 19th September 2016
As we look forward to the Annual Spark 21 Conference on 9 November 2016 at Simmons & Simmons LLP, the First 100 Years Project will be publishing excerpts of speeches from the 2015 Spark21 Conference every Monday, leading up to this year’s conference. Please visit the website for more information on how to attend.

Opening Remark by Catherine Dixon, Chief Executive of the Law Society.

Ladies and gentleman, it is a privilege to open today’s SPARK 21 Conference and to support the ‘First 100 Years project’.

Let’s start our journey at the end of the 19th century.

At this time, women were not considered persons within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843, and therefore could not become solicitors.

Under common law women were considered to be under a general disability by reason of their sex.

Gwyneth Bebb decided that she was not very happy about this, and in 1913 she brought court proceedings against the Law Society, asking for a declaration that she be considered – a ‘person’.

Unfortunately, the court decided that Gwyneth was not a person, and in spite of taking her case to the court of appeal, the refusal to admit women as solicitors on the basis they were disabled and not people continued.

It took a further six years before the first Sex Disqualification Act was passed, and in 1919 women were finally allowed to practice law.

We have a lot to thank Gwyneth Bebb for. If she hadn’t made her challenge, the future of the legal profession could have been very different.

Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes were the first women to pass their solicitors examinations in 1922.

But who would be the first woman solicitor?

To determine who should be admitted first, they ran a race along Chancery Lane.

The first to burst through the doors of Chancery Lane – no doubt with her elbows out – was Carrie Morrison, who went on to become the first woman solicitor.

Nine years after Carrie Morrison and her peers were admitted, 100 women had qualified as solicitors.

So – lets fast forward 93 years. What are we seeing?

  • women now make up almost half the profession: we account for about 47 per cent of the UK’s workforce and 48 per cent of solicitors are women
  • more women are entering the profession: we make up just over 60 per cent of law graduates and an equal amount of new admissions

  • These statistics seem to paint a promising picture – but lets take a closer look at the evidence:
  • women are still not making it to partner status in equal numbers to men: our stats show that of the approximately 30,000 partners in private practice, 72 per cent are men and only 28 per cent women.

  • Women’s skills and abilities continue to be underused in the profession.

    While the position of women solicitors has improved since 1922, gender inequality remains a relevant issue today.
  • women aged between 36-40 and older, are leaving the profession
  • often at the point when they have the skills and experience to become partners in private practice.

  • So why are women leaving?

    Evidence suggests work-life balance is a problem.

    Some women fear asking their employers for flexible work arrangements as this request could be seen as a lack of commitment to their jobs.

    This puts women under pressure and some vote with their feet and leave the sector, taking with them their knowledge and experience.

    Interestingly, a greater percentage of women decide to work in-house, where perhaps more employers have recognised the benefit of flexible working policies as a way of attracting and keeping the best employees.

    There are great benefits of gender equality. For instance:
  • evidence shows that companies with a good gender balance consistently outperform those that do not
  • figures from the Women’s Business Council estimate that fairer treatment for women in the workplace could add over £150bn to GDP by 2030

  • I believe that it is essential that the legal community recognises the contribution women can make at a senior level, and where they are loosing talented women, take steps to retain their knowledge and experience.

    The Philosopher George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

    We believe that the legacy of the ‘First 100 years project’ will be to immortalise the contribution of women to the legal profession.

    Their stories, struggles and successes will be a lasting testament to their contributions.

    The Law Society of England and Wales is proud to be an official partner of the project.

    As part of our commitment we have:
  • provided access to our library archives on women’s information
  • written to firms which are signatories of our Equality and Diversity Charter, asking them to support the project
  • promoted the project with decision-makers in the judiciary and government

  • I invite you to support this project, including providing stories, promoting the project and, if you can, contributing financially.

    We have come a long way since 1922 and Gwyneth Bebb – but we must not forget the past.

    Helena Kennedy QC is right to say that ‘women’s struggles are not over’.

    When I was an articled clerk, I was asked to wash up the partners mugs because I was a woman. I think it is safe to say that I refused this request not because I minded washing up – but I did mind having to do it because I am a woman. Anyway, the partners had to put up with dirty mugs for their morning coffee.

    But also and more seriously, I felt that I had to work harder and outperform my male colleagues to get the same recognition.

    There is still more to be done to ensure that women’s skills and contributions are recognised throughout our profession – at every level.

    The stories collected through the ‘First 100 years project’ are just the start.

    It is essential that this information is used to support cultural change within our profession – Gwyneth Bebb, Carrie Morrison and all our women colleagues deserve no less.

    Thank you. I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

    **The transcript can also be found at the Law Society website.

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