In the year that marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers, Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years project says the “rigid and inflexible structures” in many law firms are the main obstacles stopping women’s progress to senior positions.
She says that with the profession dragging its heels in promoting true equality, that it’s time for quotas to ensure more women are represented at equity partner level and in senior management.
“One hundred years ago, the battle was for participation in our legal system,” says Dana. “That battle has been won, with more women than men now entering the profession. What we now need is to see equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving the same remuneration. Women are still not sufficiently represented at equity level, amongst QCs or in the judiciary and when they are, they are not paid as much as their male counterparts. We should be demanding equal representation and pay.
“Much of the problem is structural. I would like to see an end to the ‘salaried partner’ position that is so often where senior women find themselves – promoted to partner but without the voting power conferred by being in the equity, giving firms the cover of higher female partner numbers. When women are not adequately represented at the top things do not change.”
Dana argues that, though controversial, the need for quotas for the number of women at both equity partner and management level is becoming clear as years of talking about the need for diversity have failed to drive sufficient change. She also argues for more creativity and flexibility to accommodate both women and men with caring responsibilities.
She says, “I have come to the belief that quotas are necessary. Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far. What we have learnt from history is that change sometimes needs to be forced. There are many firms and chambers out there who recognise the importance of diversity but are hampered by industrial levels of inflexibility. The reality is that our workplaces can be incredibly rigid, inflexible and artificial places that don’t reflect our real lives. We need to start from the top, unravelling the practices and structures that do not work for women and increasingly, many men. We need to interrogate working conditions to see if they are fit for purpose rather than the expectation being that women should fit into them.”
The First 100 Years ¬is a ground-breaking project charting the journey of women in the legal profession. This year, its exhibition charting the key milestones throughout the last 100 years of women in law, which until this month was housed at the Supreme Court, tours the country. It starts this month in Leeds where it is displayed at Leeds University’s Faculty of Law until 25th February when it will move to Worcester University followed by Wolverhampton University at the end of April.
The project was founded on the basis that the profession must understand the historical context of how we got to where we are now if we want to remove the barriers to women’s progress. The stories of those legal pioneers are vital in providing a solid, positive platform for the future.
For many years, equal numbers of women and men have been joining the legal profession but female representation at the top, whether that is in the judiciary, amongst QCs or at equity level in private practice still lags significantly behind.