MPF highlights Obelisk’s First 100 Years

Obelisk’s First 100 Years project maps the journey of women lawyers.

A five-year project charting the journey of women in the UK legal profession was officially launched at the House of Lords last week.

The project aims to creating an online library of 100 videos and hundreds of stories about women who have shaped the legal profession since the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

“We need these stories – both past and present – in order to understand what the future holds for women lawyers. We are constantly preoccupied by the negligible change in the percentage numbers of women who are in the boardroom. By setting the debate in a historical context, it is easier to see the rapid rise of women in the profession in the last 30 years and understand how we can use that information to shape the future.”

Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support and originator of the First 100 Years project.

In partnership with The Law Society of England & Wales, the project organisers are looking to hear from all members of the profession about women that inspired their careers.

They are also seeking biographies, photographs and stories of inspirational and pioneering women in the legal profession over the past 95 years.

The First 100 Years project, which commenced in 2014, aims to create a comprehensive timeline of women’s rise in the legal profession.

Unequal pay and progression in law firms

Despite the passage of sex discrimination legislation and the Equal Pay Act 1970, women lawyers continue to earn substantially less than their male counterparts.

“In 2014, women effectively worked for free for 57 days – three days longer than in 2013,” commented Linda Stewart, head of employment at Simpson Millar, in a Managing Partner article.

“It seems ironic that the profession, which seeks to uphold the law, performs so poorly when it comes to measuring its own equality success. Firms that publish gender pay audits are rare – reflecting a widespread reluctance because they will no doubt highlight a cavity the size that most employees and onlookers alike would find unacceptable.”

Global research has found that female leadership improves both financial and non-financial business performance. The highest-performing companies surveyed were doing much more to encourage the advancement of women than the lower-performing companies.

Buyers of legal services at large organisations are increasingly demanding gender-diverse teams from law firms, which are struggling to keep up.

Many law firms have strong pipelines of female talent, to the point that women regularly constitute more than half of their trainees and associates. However, the majority continue to record low gender diversity levels in their partnerships.

At international law firms, women often make up less than 20 per cent of the partners. Women in London, regional and national firms fare somewhat better, at about 25 per cent of the partners on average. However, female representation is significantly lower at equity partner level; among the UK’s top-25 law firms, women make up between 15 and 17 per cent, fractionally up from the 14 to 15 per cent recorded in 2008, according to PwC data.

A recent Managing Partner roundtable found that large law firms need to radically change their cultures and working practices if they are to succeed in creating gender-diverse partnerships.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to get to 50 per cent diversity until the business of law as practiced by large law firms today changes,” said Gina N Shishima, US head of IP transactions and patent prosecutions, and US chief diversity officer at Norton Rose Fulbright.

Many law firms, such as Norton Rose Fulbright, have introduced quotas or targets as part of their efforts to increase gender diversity in their partnerships and senior management teams. However, such ‘affirmative action’ measures are often controversial and are not always successful in meeting their objectives. Some firms have found that a merit-based promotion system can increase gender diversity.

A focus on creating an inclusive culture, rather than using targets or quotas, can also be effective in achieving gender equality, as Withers discovered. Training on how to counteract unconscious bias is also key to counteracting the ‘men’s club’ mentality which keeps women out of partnerships.

An extensive programme of activities and events is planned under the First 100 Years project in the run-up to the centenary of the Act in 2019.