Gender diversity: A snapshot of the legal profession in 2018

Almost 100 years have passed since the first female solicitor was admitted into the country’s legal profession. 

In 1922, four women sat and passed the Law Society’s examinations and, by virtue of finishing her articles first, Carrie Morrison was the first to officially become a solicitor. Maud Crofts, Mary Sykes and Mary Pickup followed immediately after. 

Last month, the Law Society published the UK’s largest ever survey on gender diversity in the legal profession to mark Women’s Day 2018. The organisation has come a long way in the last century; the Law Society initially refused to allow Morrison, Crofts, Sykes and Pickup to sit their exams in 1913. 

The women were only allowed to practice law with the eventual introduction of the 1919 Sex Disqualification Act. Before then, a Court of Appeal decision had found the aspiring female solicitors were not considered “persons” within the Solicitors Act 1843 and forbade them from being admitted.  

Gender diversity in the 21st Century

Thankfully, much has changed since. Female solicitors across England and Wales now outnumber male professionals for the first time – and the Law Society is keen to take a stand against inequality within the industry. 

“I am a passionate believer in equality. Where there is inequality, I will not flinch from tackling it,” said vice-president Christina Blacklaws last month. “I know I’m not alone in this – justice, fairness and the rule of law are what drew most of us to the legal profession.”

Huge progress has been made with gender diversity, but there is still much more to be done. The Law Society’s comprehensive study touched on a number of issues that remain in the workplace. 

For example, while nearly three-quarters of male solicitors believe gender equality has taken significant strides forward over the last four years, only 48 per cent of female peers agreed. 

Some 60 per cent of all respondents recognised pay gaps between men and women in the workplace, and only 16 per cent felt organisations were taking visible steps to tackle the issue.

What are the main barriers to gender diversity in law?

One of the key problems highlighted in the Law Society report is the lack of women in senior positions. Women may outnumber men overall, but men hold a disproportionate amount of the top roles. 

Why is this? More than half (52 per cent) of respondents said unconscious bias within the organisation prevented women from being promoted. Tellingly, only 11 per cent of businesses appear to have training to stop unintentional favouritism. 

An unacceptable work-life balance was a key issue for 49 per cent of those polled, while 46 per cent said traditional networks for career progression in law are very male-oriented. 

Lastly, 41 per cent of solicitors believe businesses lack flexible working policies. When combined with poor work-life balance perceptions within law, the research suggests that legal departments are seen as rigid and outdated with their employment practices. 

How can gender diversity be improved in law?

Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming proportion of solicitors believe more flexible working would improve gender diversity in the profession. 

Both men (88 per cent) and women (93 per cent) were in favour of their business having better policies in this regard, with only 52 per cent having a consistently enforced flexible working framework. 

Other initiatives that respondents said had worked in their organisation included: 

  • More networking opportunities at local, regional and national levels;
  • Better mentoring and sponsorship programmes;
  • Encouraging more men to participate in the equality debate; and
  • Increasing the visibility of leading women in law. 

Organisations should also look to eliminate unconscious bias during the recruitment process. For example, a University of Waterloo and Duke University study found that job adverts often contain stereotypically gendered language that could discourage men and women from applying for certain roles. 

Research has also revealed that female candidates face tougher job interviews than men

Taking the next step in gender diversity

At Barclay Simpson, we champion equality, diversity and inclusion in all our business activities. 

Not only do we have comprehensive policies in place to foster diversity internally, but we also strive to ensure our clients and candidates can benefit from our experiences of delivering a fairer, more progressive workplace. 

If you would like to discuss how to emphasise diversity within your in-house legal recruitment processes, please contact me on 0207 936 2601 or send an email to I’d love to hear from you. 

Image: Olivier Le Moal via iStock