How has the legal industry changed for women in the last 100 years?

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Three female lawyers at different stages of their legal careers tell Stylist how the law industry has changed for women over the last 100 years.

It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago, women were barred from working in law. They weren’t even allowed to study the profession.

This means that, whenever they were testifying in court or seeking legal advice, women would be met and surrounded my men. Lots of men. Barristers, solicitors, paralegals – they were all very much male.

A whole century later, we have thankfully seen women slowly but surely making their mark in the legal industry. A lot has changed since Dr Ivy Williams became the first woman to be called to the bar in 1922. The most recent figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) show that almost half (48%) of all lawyers working in law firms are now women, while 58% of in-house solicitors are female. 

male lawyers

The prospects of becoming a partner in a law firm are still higher for white males than any other group

However, there is still a long way to go before women reach parity with men. Only 33% of partners in law firms are female, while only 21% of all lawyers are BAME (an increase from just 15% in 2014). Analysis of the SRA report shows the prospects of becoming a partner in a law firm are still higher for white males than any other group, while BAME women are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to progressing as solicitors.

Of course, the gender pay gap still lingers as a barrier for women around the world, and the legal sector is not exempt from this problem – some law firms have even reported gender pay gaps of over 60%

So what has changed within the law industry since women were finally admitted? Three women at different stages of their law careers talk Stylist through the ways they think the industry has evolved over the past years. 

“Getting into law as a woman, and a black woman, is hard”: Melanie Frimpong, 26, works in Insurance Law

melanie frimpong

“I’ve always been the ‘lawyer’ of my family,” says Melanie Frimpong. “Anytime there’s been an issue, I’ve been the person to solve it and sort things out. That’s where my interest in law began. I started studying law at A-Level and haven’t stopped since.”

The most recent statistics for women looking to study law at undergraduate level are encouraging – 68.8% of accepted applicants are female, and 36.5% are from minority ethnic groups (with women making up 68% of these groups).

However, after graduating from her law degree and saving money to start her Legal Practice Course, things didn’t initially pan out the way Frimpong had anticipated.

“I was expecting twins before my graduation. My pregnancy wasn’t planned, but I had already paid my deposit to go to law school in September,” she says. “I was feeling really defeated, and started working two paid jobs and one internship. I did that for a month before giving birth. While on maternity leave, I was battling in my mind about whether to go back to law school or not.”

In the end, Frimpong powered through. She made it back to law school, where she achieved a distinction grade. She now has an MSc, LLB and LPC to her name.

“Getting into law as a woman, and a black woman, is hard and I used to think, is there anything that is going to happen for me? It was very daunting,” she says.

Having started work as a paralegal one year ago, Frimpong believes that women have to sacrifice a lot to earn their place in the legal industry.

“First of all, it has always been a shock to people that I have kids,” she explains. “In law school, people used to say to me, ‘how can you manage this with kids?’. The industry has progressed, but there is still a long way to go. A lot of senior women [in my firm] aren’t married, but was that a choice? I don’t think it is fair.”

Melanie has recently started a new job as a trainee solicitor.

“There are still women facing harassment in the workplace”: Wonta Ansah-Twum, 45, barrister in family and employment law 

barrister

In 2017, women effectively worked “for free” for 51 days of the year because of the gender pay gap.

One woman trying to eliminate that is Wonta Ansah-Twum. She became a lawyer primarily because she believes that more women are needed to fight for the rights of vulnerable people, especially in an industry that has been historically controlled by men.

”The only way more women’s voices can be heard is if more of us get into positions of power,” she says.

“At one job I had, I was asked to do a more senior role – but without any increase in my salary. Then they hired a man to do the role, and they were more than willing to pay him more. I was extremely upset and felt like I wasn’t being valued.”

As a barrister in employment and family law, Ansah-Twum sees a lot of sexism and harassment in the workforce. But does she believe the attitude towards women working in law has changed over the past 100 years?

“We have certainly seen a decrease in sexism, but there is a lot of room for improvement. There are still women facing harassment in the workplace. As an employment law specialist, I have seen so many cases like that. The legal profession is still very much subjecting women to harassment.”

Unfortunately, harassment isn’t the only issue faced by women working in law. A recent study from the Law Society showed only 48% of women believe there has been progress on gender equality in the last five years, compared to, ironically, 74% of men. 60% of people surveyed said there was a gender pay gap in their place of work, but only 16% said there were visible steps being taken to improve it.

women maternity leave

After the average woman has her first child, she experiences “a gradual but continual rise in the wage gap”

So what can be done? In the same study, 91% of respondents said that flexible working was critical to improving diversity in the law profession. And this is true of all professions – according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a woman’s salary plateaus after the birth of her first child, increasing the gender pay gap. A study from the IFS found that after the average woman has her first child, she experiences “a gradual but continual rise in the wage gap”. By the time her first child is 12, “women’s hourly wages are a third below men’s.”

And the best way to eliminate this disruption to a woman’s career? Flexible working, alongside the Shared Parental Leave scheme.

“I had to stop working at The Bar because I had a young child,” Ansah-Twum acknowledges. “Had I carried on, then I would be a judge by now. But I made the decision that it would be better for my daughter if I worked in an employed role.”

She continues: “There is a good balance of women practising law, but the issue is whether they get to managerial roles, equal pay, progression and how they are treated at work.”

“It’s very hard to come back [to work] when you have had a child”: Georgie Hall, 57, solicitor in family law

With 26 years of legal experience, Georgie Hall has seen a lot of change over the years.

Hall is one of the few female partners in the UK to have made it to such a senior level alongside having two separate maternity leaves.

“As a woman, you have to work somewhere flexible,” she emphasises.

In Hall’s law firm, Prettys, choose men and women to work there equally.

Speaking of the changes she has seen in the industry so far, she says, “there is far more acceptance now. It is no longer gender that is the driver [to success], but the ability of the person.

“The profession has had to come to terms with that because of the number of [women] that have qualified to enter the legal sector. I came into the profession in 1993, which was the first time that there were more female lawyers than men. More than 50% of people doing law degrees were female and more barristers were female.”

legal industry

There are small but welcome signs of progress in the law industry

There are small but welcome signs of progress in the law industry that Hall recognises. However, like Ansah-Twum, she acknowledges that being the primary care giver to a child can make succeeding within the industry incredibly difficult.

“It’s very hard to come back [to work] when you have had a child,” she says. “You have to be available whenever your client needs you, so you can’t be selective [with your time].That is hard with a child.

“I waited 10 years until I became a partner, and I have two young children. I needed time,” she adds. “I wouldn’t want my daughters, or any woman, to be diminished because of their gender.”

Images: Getty

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