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23 December 2019

UK lawyers celebrate 100th anniversary of law granting women access to profession

Landmark prompts debate over obstacles to creating a level gender playing field

Lawyers in the UK are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the parliamentary act that allowed women to enter the legal profession. The Government Legal Department, the Law Society and the Bar Council are among the bodies commemorating the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 on 23 December 1919.

The anniversary has provided an opportunity for the challenges facing women lawyers today to be extensively debated and was the inspiration for The First 100 Years project, which is producing a digital museum of video interviews with prominent female lawyers in order to create positive role models.

The project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, featured today in a special edition of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour alongside the leading human rights barrister Cherie Booth QC (pictured), who spent part of her career practising out of 10 Downing Street, while her husband, Tony Blair, was British Prime Minister.

Denis-Smith said just 2% of respondents to a survey of women lawyers conducted by First 100 Years believed there was true equality and called on women to be strategic in their efforts to secure a breakthrough in representation within the profession’s most senior ranks.

“We have another level of club that we need to break into and that is the club of partners on the law firm side and the club of Queen’s Counsel (QCs) on the other side,” she added.

Booth said: “As lawyers committed to human rights and the rule of law we should be in the lead, not at the back of the queue and frankly we are towards the back of the queue. But nevertheless, things have moved on and I suspect the issues we are talking about are the issues you would have if you had a group of accountants or people trying to be chief executives.”

Incoming Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC has identified improving diversity within the Bar as one of her key aims.

“Currently, some 50% of entrants to the Bar are women,” she said in her inaugural speech on 3 December. “But regrettably, less than 16% of QCs are. But progress is being made. Next year, as well as having a female chair of the Bar Council, I am pleased that almost half the Bar Council committees and, for the first time ever, a third of the circuits, will be led by a woman, as well as many of the specialist bar associations.”

She announced the launch of a new Future Leaders of the Bar programme to identify talented practitioners who do not see themselves in that light and help them “raise their abilities, expectations and horizons’”.

The extent of the challenge faced by law firms as they seek to reduce the gender pay gap within their senior echelons has been illustrated by the release of recent data that shows little year-over-year change in pay disparities.

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