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Reflection of 100 years of women in law

Partner and Head of Gender Equality, Bavita Rai, gives her reflections on 100 years of women in law as we prepare to mark International Women's Day.

I cannot help but feel a sense of pride in how far women have come and to be celebrating International Women’s Day. It is right that we should also recall a momentous piece of history which has had a profound effect. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 allowed women to qualify and be admitted to the Bar and the Roll of Solicitors. Progress was for most of the last century rather slow but during my career spanning a quarter of a century, I have seen the legal profession change considerably and I am proud that I have been a part of the progress that women have made in that time. There have been some high profile successes: for example, Baroness Hale presiding over the Supreme Court.

However, one thing that has not changed as quickly as one might have expected concerns gender diversity in the legal profession. One hundred years on, the solicitors’ profession still has a gender pay gap notwithstanding The Equal Pay Act 1970 which provided that women should receive equal pay for doing the same work - work rated as equivalent or work of equal value to men. Women continue to be paid less, The Times in 2019 reporting ‘women working at one of the ten largest law firms, which combined made about £14 billion last year, are being paid on average 43 percent less than their male colleagues.’

There is nevertheless optimism that change is afoot with both women and men speaking out against discriminatory practices. Firms are acknowledging the need for change by implementing effective strategies to include flexible/agile working, encouraging and supporting paternity leave.

Women are speaking up about inequality, no longer fearful to do so. Those that have managed to break the glass ceiling are becoming role models for future generations and championing the cause of women. Increasingly, men are understanding the vital role they have to play, becoming allies and showing solidarity to stamp out inequality.

Whilst there are indications that the ‘glass ceiling’ may be cracking, there is still a long way to go before true parity is achieved. Equality is much more than a legal obligation; it is about creating the right culture which accepts that equality is both morally and ethically right. It would be nice to think that this celebration is a catalyst and I certainly hope that these issues are of historical interest only 100 years from now.

Bavita Rai is a Partner and Head of Gender Equality at Weightmans.

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