Sex no Bar

Today Fortune Law celebrates 100 years of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. This allowed women to qualify as lawyers, to serve as magistrates and on juries and eventually aspire to become judges.

The Act stated that “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 office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise).” 

We have come a long way and there is still much to do to achieve parity at every level but today we can celebrate all that has been achieved.

Below Eleanor Williams, our commercial paralegal reflects on the Act, the First 100 Years project and what it means to her as she embarks on her legal career.

The First 100 Years project and the path to gender equity in Law

“The First 100 Years is a historical record illustrating the journey of women in law since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the “Act”) was passed on 23 December 1919. This marked the entry of women into the legal profession, or, rather, marked the turning point in women finally being deemed to be ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law.

The principal choice of medium for the project – 100 video stories – is as equally impressive as the inspiration behind it and is well supplemented by a comprehensive timeline, biographies, podcasts and a published book. A primarily digital museum enabling her story to be the narrative; captivating the human element often neglected and making the account accessible to many.

Uncovering little-known histories which document the achievements of women alongside the continued struggles over these last 100 years, the project is important for so many reasons. Having a coherent historical record perhaps most importantly presents the opportunity to learn. In doing so we can avoid regression within the legal profession and apply lessons to other industries and professions.

Whilst the Act enabled women to enter the profession by removing all legal barriers to entry, it fell short of actively giving rights, for example, to be treated on no less favourable terms or to be paid equally. The discrimination that women have endured following the Act provides an important lesson for lawmakers, leaders, businesses and society at large. Legislation must be carefully considered to maximise impact, but we, collectively, must be aware that legislative change in itself is not enough.

With notoriously long hours and demanding billable hours targets being prerequisite to progression, the legal profession has been slow to accommodate working parents. The project is successful in highlighting that there is still much work to be done in this regard, but it has also given a voice to the profession’s many working mothers. It is important for women (and men) in all industries to have role models that have enjoyed a successful career without sacrificing family and vice versa. Dorothy Livingstone is an excellent example, being the only female partner at a prominent city firm between 1980 and 1983, and the inspiration for the First 100 Years project (founder Dana Denis-Smith saw a photo of Dorothy standing as the sole female partner amongst many male partners and went on to find out more). It is similarly important for these voices to be well publicised to reach leaders and those responsible for making decisions relating to promotion within companies and challenge any preconceptions they may hold.

As Lady Hale is ever keen and correct to emphasise: a diverse profession is good for everyone. This is particularly true of law given its direct link to the proper administration of justice. However, diverse perspectives benefit every organisation in every industry. In turn, this benefits society. Capturing and widely sharing a record of progress informs the debate around diversity and helps us to effect real change.

I feel privileged to be entering the profession with so many positive role models; both directly around me and those I have had the pleasure of learning about through the project. I have also been lucky enough to hear inspirational women speak at events associated with the First 100 Years project. It is uplifting to hear the accounts and thoughts of determined and intelligent women who may otherwise have been forgotten let alone celebrated. It empowers me to wear my gender as a badge (or perhaps brooch ) of honour I also welcome the sense of duty it imposes: the duty to continue to fight for progress in their name, my own, and for the generations that will follow.

Whilst 64.8% of trainees registered in 2019 and 50.8% of practising solicitors are women, only 30.1% are partners. The gender pay gap endures, as does the sexual harassment of women. The project is important to me at this early stage of my career as it reflects upon the fact that until there is parity at every level, equality cannot be achieved. It encourages all of us to celebrate, but not become complacent with the progress made. Both are necessary for advancement and I am hopeful as to what can be achieved in my career span and beyond.”

Eleanor Williams

FORTUNE LAW

23 December 2019