FIRST 100 Years of Women in law - book review
Women in Law

On Monday 23rd December 2019, we celebrate the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become professionals in the UK. The First 100 Years project is the national campaign celebrating this centenary, focusing primarily on the progression of women in the legal profession since 1919. First 100 Years has been celebrating this centenary throughout this year in many ways, one of its latest being the newly released FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law, which is the first book of its kind telling the story of women in law throughout the last 100 years in an accessible and informative way.

About First 100 Years

Set up in 2015 by Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project has been building an archive to tell the previously untold stories of the pioneering women who made history in the legal profession. From the first female solicitor, Madge Easton Anderson, in 1920, to Elizabeth Lane, who was the first woman appointed a County Court judge and then the first woman appointed to the High Court, right up to the present day with the first female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, and future firsts, like future president of the Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce, who will become the first President from a BAME background in 2021.

First 100 Years is a multimedia project, telling the history of women in law in many ways to ensure as many people as possible can learn about the stories in a way that suits them; from the filmed biographical interviews, a podcast series, a unique music commission to an artwork commission for the Supreme Court, and now a book, there is something for everyone to learn about the inspiring female pioneers that shaped the profession today. The purpose of the project is not just to understand the history of women in law, but to use this to provide the context for promoting further gender equality in the profession, by assessing progress so far and how far we still have to go.


FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law seeks to capture the lives of female pioneers in law, past and present, to ensure we do not lose the stories of these incredible women. It does so following the format of the First 100 Years timeline, podcast series and exhibition, decade-by-decade, delving into the broader themes of each decade, including the wider historical context that impacted women’s place in the profession. It also goes further into the many stories of the individual women including biographical information and both archival and modern day pictures of the pioneers, making it a highly informative and entertaining read.

Lucinda Acland, a long-term volunteer on the project and the host of the First 100 Years Podcast series, and Katie Broomfield, an academic in the field and a champion of the project, have brought together archival material, material produced by the project through the video and podcast interviews and their own research to create this book. FIRST is the product of over five years’ worth of efforts in building the archive, which was not an easy task.

The project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, often refers to the fact that what she thought would be a history project, turned into an “archaeological dig” to unearth the stories because women’s achievements often go unacknowledged and their stories rarely told, so finding out many of the stories took a lot of work. The writing of the book itself, however, was done in a very short amount of time. It was originally not intended to be released until 2020 but due to an incredible amount of interest, the task was brought forward and the authors got it done in a matter of months in time for the centenary celebrations, and we are so pleased they did as it has been a huge success!

There was a hotly contested debate around the title, from the authors, publishers, editors, proof readers and the First 100 Years team. Being the first of its kind, it was important to ensure the title hit the correct tone. It had to transcend the purely feminist literature section of a library and be a credible history book in its own right, irrespective of the fact it featured women. In the end, it was actually The Attic editor Laure Latham who came up with the simple yet effective title: FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law. It captured the essence of the project, with the name of the project in the title, but also the simple word “FIRST” alluded to the women featured as “firsts” in various ways, and is also signifying that there are many achievements for women in law to come – this is just the beginning.

Why is FIRST so important?

Ultimately, women need to understand their history to be able to place themselves within it. It has become apparent to the First 100 Years team over the past few years that, understandably, people could not accurately estimate how long women have been in the profession, or have known the many anecdotes that have since been shared, such as not being allowed to wear trousers in the courtroom, having no female lavatory facilities or women frequently being asked to make the tea in meetings. It is only by understanding the background can we both recognise how far we have come and make sure we fight to ensure history does not repeat itself. As Baroness Kennedy says in her testimonial of the book, “this is a vital and stunning piece of our history…the absence of women in the system of law was a gross impediment to justice” and we must ensure women’s place in the profession is cemented.

The Next 100 Years

As The Secret Barrister says in their testimonial of the book, “[FIRST] offers not only a unique celebration of the progress achieved by women in the law, but a vital reminder of how much work there still is to do”. Despite the progress of the last 100 years, there are still barriers to be broken and progress to be made, and there are plenty of plans in the works for The Next Hundred Years! You can get involved by following us on social media @First100Years and @Next100Years_, checking out all the many resources we have on our website and contacting us at [email protected].

Make sure to get your copy of the book by going to

Here’s to the Next 100 Years!

The Legal Update

Japan is known for its bright city lights, tall buildings and weird and wonderful technological innovations. However, behind the scenes the country’s innovation, especially in the legal sector, is suffering due to its conservative culture and demographic problems. Ken Onda, business intern at Obelisk Support, takes a look at these conflicting elements and what needs to be done to sustain legal innovation in Japan.

The Status of Women in Law

A recent domestic scandal, where one of the most prestigious medical universities in the country admitted to manipulating entrance exam scores of female candidates to keep their pass rate under 1 out of 3, drew attention to Japan’s ingrained conservative outlook on gender roles and the lack of progress being made on equality across professional and technological industries. The fixing was allegedly done due to the belief that women had a higher chance of leaving the medical profession after conceiving children, causing “an intolerable burden for already overworked doctors”.

It is no surprise on hearing this news that Japan is ranked 114th out of 144 countries in gender equality, one of the worst for a developed country. In the legal sector, female attorneys make up merely 18.2% of Japan’s lawyer population, according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Of that 18.2%, only 11% are partners. This is a quite unbelievable disparity between men and women. Despite its shrinking demographic with 30% of its population 65 or over, Japan continues to discriminate against half of its population. This lack of representation is one of the reasons why Japan is suffering economically, and is increasingly unable to deal with international legal matters and lacking innovation in the legal sector.

Conservatism vs Legal Innovation

As far as the structure of its legal system, Japan has fewer per capita lawyers compared to other industrialised nations such as the US and EU countries. There are fears that at the current state, Japan will face a major problem in an ever-globalising world. Japan has adopted a Western legal system to settle legal disputes in courts despite significant cultural mismatch. Japanese people tend to resolve issues privately through negotiation without the involvement of lawyers. If there is no resolution, the conflicting parties will often go directly to court and litigate without private/commercial mediation. However, as lawyers are often not taught about mediation during university, they are not well equipped to solve problems in non-litigious ways.

Chart source: Wall Street Journal

This is a problem as when foreign entities – especially those in the West – try to do business with Japan, they are often caught off guard by the norms within the Japanese legal industry. This makes them less willing to work with Japanese entities, which is a significant barrier to collaborative innovation.

Moreover, the driving force of innovation – start-ups – are the most under-supported sector in Japan. Japan embodies a vertical collectivism, where bureaucracy, group-thinking and strict regulation dominate. It is a country where people are generally less inclined to take risks. For instance, Japanese landlords often want to see at least 2 years of profits before renting space to a company. It is therefore no surprise that venture capitalists often do not invest on high-risk ventures such as emerging technologies in the legal sector.

Although Japan invests heavily in R&D and is known for its technological advancement, it lacks entrepreneurship and application and capitalisation of its research due to its culture and regulation. Japan is still at its core a highly conservative country that does not embrace change readily as other developed nations, especially concerning new technologies. Japanese corporations such as Fujitsu, Hitachi and Sony are too slow and bureaucratic to keep up with agile foreign competitors in countries such as the US, Germany and South Korea.

Japan’s Missing In-House Lawyers

Japan is facing a major demographic problem involving shrinking population, going below the replacement rate. Subsequently, its market is also shrinking. For this reason, many Japanese companies are being more inclined to enter foreign markets, such as by conducting outbound M&A. However, due to the lack of experience in M&A and human resources, especially for SMEs, most of these deals fail according to the Asia Business Law Journal. This is exacerbated by the fact that Japanese firms tend to not employ in-house lawyers, but instead, make their departments deal with their own respective legal issues (e.g. a finance department deals with finance-related legal issues). This means that senior management is not given legal guidance when going through an M&A deal that is often full of legal issues. This increases the likelihood of the M&A deal not going through. Even when there is a legal department present, they often take traditional roles such as reviewing contracts and dealing with litigation. According to the Association of Corporate Legal Departments in Japan, only 6% of in-house lawyers felt that senior management frequently implemented the advice of in-house legal counsel.

Illustrating this trend, only 5% of qualified lawyers in Japan work as a legal counsel. One of the main reason for this is because the Japanese Bar Exam has been deliberately designed to be one of the hardest in the country to pass. On average, people take the exam 6 times before finally passing to qualify as a lawyer. For this reason, a lot of Japanese law students go on to work after graduation as in-house counsels without being qualified. Could foreign-qualified lawyers be the answer to Japan’s lack of qualified lawyers?

Not so. The barrier for foreign lawyers to work in Japan is high, as it requires extensive documentation and in-person visits to the Japanese Bar and Ministry of Justice, taking at least 5 months. Conversely, hiring foreign-qualified lawyers for matters such as international arbitration is seen as a strenuous process for firms in Japan and in practice, not common. The resulting short supply of lawyers stunts the demand for innovation and change in the Japanese legal industry.

The Bottom Line

There is a serious need for legal innovation in Japan. To do this, the country first needs to address the core issue regarding gender discrimination. There needs to be progressive reforms and auditing of university admission process by the government to break entry barriers for women in male-dominated professions such as law and STEM. Additionally, university teaching of law should include the concept of mediation, as often practiced internationally, and the general practice of law around the world, especially in Western cultures. This is essential to keep Japan in the global stage.  

Then there is the lack of supply of qualified lawyers, especially in-house counsels. This will be a major problem in the coming years for Japan due to the rapid pace of globalisation, and increasing importance of IP and technology. The scarcity of in-house counsels means that Japan is increasingly unable to deal with international disputes, especially for SMEs. Despite the efforts to increase number of lawyers in Japan, little progress has been made. Japan needs to encourage not only domestic lawyers, but also foreign lawyers. On the one hand, the Japanese Bar Exam should ease its examination requirements while not losing its quality in order to encourage fresh law graduates to take the exam. On the other and, work barriers for foreign-qualified lawyers should be loosened to also increase the global availability of lawyers.

Finally, Japan needs to change its approach to business. In the age of rapid technological advancements, Japan needs to move to a more agile approach to business and loosen regulations to enable startups and entrepreneurship to thrive. Japan needs to place as much emphasis on commercialisation of technologies as it does on R&D. It will be interesting to watch progress over the next decade to see how the country can reconcile its contradictions to perform to its full potential on the global stage.

The Legal UpdateWomen in Law

The Law360 Satisfaction Survey always makes intriguing reading – providing, in U.S. lawyer’s own words, a far reaching analysis of level of happiness in the industry, the best firms to work for, and of course key insights into diversity and gender representation. This year, in light of the #MeToo movement that began in Hollywood, the subject of sexual harassment is also a talking point.

Among the things we learned were that even with the prospect of high earnings, law graduates are bogged down and stressed by student debts as other graduates, with nearly a third grappling with six-figure debts, leading to many putting off major life events such as starting a family.

We also saw some evidence of progress being made in terms of more women lawyers in firms led by women from the Glass Ceiling Report, though that progress was deemed to be lagging in larger firms, and fairly static overall in the five years that the survey has been conducted, as explained by editor-in-chief Anne Urda. However, there was a particular finding in the Satisfaction Survey that put this picture into an uncomfortable context: Women lawyers were still reporting, in startling numbers, incidences of direct gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Shockingly, a third of female respondents report having experienced sexual harassment, and more than half said they had faced discrimination. Meaning we’re not just dealing with a lack of action or effective measures to encourage women in law – women are still actively being shut out, shut down and even harassed and assaulted because of their gender.

Lawyers are Saying #MeToo – Are They Being Heard?

The Attic recently published some of the derogatory things that are said to women in law. With credit to those on the receiving end, those women recounted their experiences with clarity and, in some instances, wry humour. That doesn’t make it ok for any of them – and it’s impossible not to get angry on their behalf when faced with such stories and statistics that should have no place in any society, let alone in the year 2018.

Lawyers are widely perceived as being pragmatic and stoic in nature. Though passionate about the rule of law and justice for the people they deal with, they achieve these aims in a reserved and reasoned manner. They understand more than most the importance of process and the harm that a bad one can do for both accused and accuser. They exchange mostly in polite scrutiny of their industry, because they approach issues with a level head, but also perhaps out of fear that any sense of anger or outrage could hurt their reputation. And we all know the negative responses that follow when a woman publicly expresses a feeling about something… We are perhaps unlikely then to see some the type of attention drawing activism that has been part of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a concerted effort to use the momentum of the now international conversation to draw attention to the issue in the legal industry.

But many feel the industry needs to go further – beyond investigating individual instances of misconduct – and actually requires a culture overhaul, according to speakers on a panel at the American Bar Association‘s annual meeting Thursday in Chicago. How can those in the industry make this cultural shift happen? Will it need a pivotal #MeToo moment to create real change?

Power and Privilege

In a feature for Vice, a group of lawyers discussed the conduct of former United States Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, and an interesting point was raised about the power structure of court life tenure federal judges and law student carrying the aforementioned burden of debt – losing out financially simply isn’t an option for many young lawyers, so they are more likely to put up with wrongdoing against them. These hierarchical arrangements in courts must be discussed as well as how people starting out in law can be safeguarded from abuses of power.

Before conversations were happening in public, many women put the responsibility on their own shoulders to prove themselves and perform better to convince people that they were not just sexual objects. Once conversations came out in the open more, the men on the panel recounted conversation with other men who began to question whether they could say wrong thing, and there was a backlash of fear of the movement. There was also the suggestion that some may choose to not hire women at all because of the ‘risk’, or exclude them from career development opportunities such as events and business dinner.

As the group lamented, if the response to #MeToo and reports of sexual inappropriateness in the industry is to limit women’s opportunities further, it hasn’t even begun to cause the culture shift that is needed. That excluding women altogether from job opportunities or events is even mooted as a solution is deeply concerning. All too often the burden is passed to victims to either tolerate the behaviour or accept a space is not for them because of the behaviour, rather than challenging the behaviour itself. This needs to be tackled as broader concern.

The Precipice of Change

However, the positive is that people now feel they can speak more freely about what has happened to them, and there is no going back from that.

Participants at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting event this month agreed, with co-founder of Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund Tina Tchen saying: “we are at an inflection point where we can shift what is going on in our workplaces.”

It is important to not view the issue of sexual harassment in isolation, the ABA president and chair of the panel Hilarie Bass  said: “What we are really talking about is building workplace cultures that are very diverse and very inclusive in every sense of the word. And that we are equipping managers and workers at law firms how to treat each other better in order to change the way workplaces operate.” And there have been moves in many organisation to make ‘say something do something’ a part of workplace policies and training, making everyone responsible for inclusivity and wellbeing. Secrecy and innuendo allowed Harvey Weinstein to get away with what he did for a long time, so a culture of openness needs to nurtured. We can’t simply rely on victims to tell their stories; those who are unaffected have to be vigilant and willing to challenge wrongdoing openly.

Panellist Nicole VanderDoes expands on the discussion in the Legal Network On The Road podcast. Her advice to people entering the profession or who have experienced troubling behaviour is to check what procedures and reporting mechanisms have been set up in their organisation for dealing with uncomfortable behaviour and misconduct. She also reminds us that those who might prefer to take the route of excluding women further to avoid the issue are also legally liable for this kind of discrimination too.

In others words, all in the industry must keep the conversation going, and leaders must continue to listen and to implement tangible measures against harassment and discrimination, to ensure we don’t see statistics like these again in 2019.

The Legal Update

Ireland has been in the spotlight for its historic ‘Yes’ vote to repeal the 8th Amendment. It is yet another sign of enormous change in social attitudes in the Republic, which in the last decade has passed progressive pieces of legislation such as Civil Partnerships, Marriage Equality and the Gender Recognition Act, to name but three. With Pride Month upon us, we talk to Stephen O’Hare, a barrister and long-time human rights and LGBTQ activist, who has worked tirelessly to advocate for equal rights and enable legislative change.

While it’s still fresh in our minds, what was your response to the recent referendum result?

It was astounding, and it was clear it came from a real desire from the Irish people to vote for change, a desire that actually stretches back for some time, even before the marriage equality referendum [2015] and the long-overdue Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act [2013]. In the lead up the consensus was that it would be very difficult to elicit further change in this area without a change of attitude in the general population, but there obviously was a will to see much broader reform of the Constitution.

It was really interesting from my own personal view as I myself thought it would be close, If the exit poll had indicated it would be 51% for ‘No’, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The organisation and sheer amount of coverage from the ‘No’ side made it feel that they had it much more tied up in terms of campaigning. Luckily, there was a more private desire for change. The numbers who voted to repeal – 66.4% nationally, with every Dublin constituency coming in over 70% – it’s incredible to see that come from where we were back in 1983 [when the 8th Amendment was passed], 1992, and even 2002. It was such a divisive issue then so to get to those numbers from there, it’s stunning.

What do you think this tell us about Ireland in the broader context of gender and sexual equality for its citizens?

I think there are a couple of things at play.

One is in the demographics. We have a mobilised generation of young people who grew up in the 80s and 90s – in the 70s and 80s there was a very dominant conservative element still present (the referendum for the insertion of the 8th amendment carried 2 to 1) – now, those young people are in their 30s/40s and are very politically engaged. We then also have another generation coming up behind them who are driving social change so rapidly; they demand rights for themselves and on the behalf of their peers and don’t wait for it to be handed to them. Another aspect driving the progression of liberalisation of the social landscape was the Celtic Tiger of the 90s and 00s– Ireland went from being a poor country blighted by unemployment and high levels of poverty-driven crime, to a nation of home owners with disposable income; a country home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies and the high earning jobs that come with them. Then, in 2008 the global financial crash hit Ireland hard but by then the country was permanently changed; we had become more open, more reliant on foreign investment and had to align ourselves with the values of our neighbours. So with that comes change, first in the form of civil partnership – homosexuality was only decriminalised 18 years beforehand – and very quickly again after that the drive towards marriage equality began.

The other fact was the change of government. After a long period of the same party [Fianna Fáil] in charge we found ourselves with a coalition of centre-right Fine Gael, and the centre-left Labour Party who, as a progressive agenda minority party with a limited fiscal portfolio began pressing hard on social issues such as children’s rights and marriage equality. I was working with the Irish Council of Civil Liberties at the time – and I remember there being doubts that Ireland would support same-sex marriage, but as we later saw it passed overwhelmingly and the sky didn’t fall in! We’ve had the Gender Recognition Act (2015), which allows people to legally change their gender – and again, the sky didn’t fall in. And now our current Taoiseach is a gay man of immigrant parentage. When you look back it is progress of a startling nature, but it also but feels inevitable given the way that Irish people now view themselves.

The next step after repeal is legislating for access to abortion – Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) are advocating for inclusive language to be used throughout legislation e.g. referring to people rather than women. What has been the response on this so far?

To be honest I think we are very much pushing an open door on that – the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has given positive signals on this issue. Of course we aim to ensure that language in any legislation post the 2015 Gender Recognition Act is inclusive of trans people, and in this case to avoid any language that would in some way bar trans people from accessing abortion services. But I think it is very much the intention of government to ensure that this will be considered in the final wording – with a little help.

You’ve been a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and equality across the social spectrum in Ireland for many years…

Yes – I’ve worked in the NGO sector for about 13 years, and that evolved from my educational background.  Having studied political science and social research I was aware of a whole range of social issues and equality matters that I felt passionately about. Since then I’ve been lucky to work in some very cutting edge organisations – I started out with ageing and issues affecting older people, and I’ve also worked with Pavee Point who advocate for the rights of Irish travellers, an ethnic minority who remain extremely marginalised both here and in Europe. These kinds of issues are important but can be unpopular so, for NGOs there’s often lots of behind the scenes awareness raising and educational work going on. In 2010, I joined the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. There, we were covering such a range of areas and campaigns relating to Ireland’s international human rights obligations, including the rights of minority groups, hate crime and reproductive rights.  I was doing a lot of work in advocacy and policy so I felt I needed to bolster my knowledge and experience. With the support of ICCL I began my legal training and I qualified as a barrister. I had to work it around my job so it meant studying in the evenings, and at that time we had just started a family, just bought and moved into a house so there was a lot going on! Through the ICCL I got involved in advocacy for LGBTQ rights and worked with many different organisations. By far one of the most impressive organisation working quietly under the radar for the recognition of trans people, which culminated in the landmark Gender Recognition Act 2015, was Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), and that’s where I very fortunately find myself today.

Explain the role of TENI in supporting people who identify as trans – what are the main issues they are facing?

TENI does a lot of advocacy and policy work, but we also focus on other areas, including individual support, employment practices, education and access to health services.  We work with schools and education centres directly to help them to understand how to facilitate a person in transition and those identifying as trans. So for example, if an individual is transitioning but is in a single sex school and wishes to remain there we work with the school to find supportive solutions. It is an active struggle – the Catholic Church owns and manages about 90% of schools in Ireland, which frames a certain ethos regarding LGBTQ people. While management in many schools is often very supportive and open to the issues, there can be an underlying religious conservative ethos to contend with. By and large, however, the work we do is very effective.

We also provide direct support to the families involved, as part of a wrap-around approach to ensure that the trans person is getting support everywhere they need it – at home, at school, among peers, at work . We work with employers to create trans inclusive policies in work, so that trans people can continue to live their lives confidently and with minimal explanation.

Health and wellbeing is one of the most significant issues that people who identify as trans face in this country – getting access to appropriate healthcare, be that access to mental health services, hormone therapy, or surgery is challenging. TENI aims to improve health services by working proactively with the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive (HSE) where we can. We want to help them move to place where they see the benefit of funding dedicated trans services, not just in one location but regionally. There is a long way to go to see that model in place but change is slowly happening– we’ve just had the announcement of 9 new positions for dedicated trans care. There is, however, still a very long waiting list for healthcare and this is extremely frustrating for trans people awaiting appointments.

Pride Month is upon us – what do you have planned? Why is it so important for people across the LGBTQ community to be involved?

Would you believe, this year is my first ‘official’ Pride. I’ve long worked on LGBTQ issues and have a great number of colleagues and friends in the community. I’ve attended the GALA Awards for LGBTQ activists a few times, which is a great introduction to community, but this is the first time I’ll be properly involved in Pride. We’re very excited for our chair Sara R Phillips, a brilliant trans activist who helped to secure the Gender Recognition Act, as she is going to be the Grand Marshal for Dublin Pride this year. It’s one of the very few times that a trans person has led the parade, and TENI being front and centre is great. That’s visibility personified – trans people not just being seen as part of the LGBTQ community but also the wider Dublin community.

Pride is important for celebration and visibility but also in terms of reminding ourselves of the work on going.   My experience over the last 10 years has seen civil society coming together very ably to push forward on issues of equality, including trans rights. There is solidarity here. Ireland is regularly examined by the UN and other international treaty bodies, so it has become very common, almost on a yearly basis, for NGOs to travel and lobby human rights committees and government officials with the civil society voice, and then message back to media. Our civil society seems to be very good at doing that. By comparison, the trans community appears to be a little bit under attack in the UK, particularly in its media narrative of late. Even though their rights are legislatively settled, this is being questioned in civil society, and there is a level of resistance to further improve the circumstances for trans people that we don’t see as much of here.

Are you surprised at the difference in debate on trans rights between Ireland and the UK?

Yes, it is worrying from our point of view – in Ireland we consume a lot of British media, and ideas carry further on social media, so we want to see progressive change across water and we have to resist that narrative coming here. We are so connected to the UK in so many ways, and let’s not forget we are by no means as diverse as the UK. But at the same time, Ireland has found its voice and wants to be seen as progressive, attracting investment and tourism as a result. In my view, Irish people actively want to break away from the old oppressive conservative identity and there is much less of a desire to roll back on social progress and openness to change. I think that’s very different to what we are seeing in the UK with questions around European human rights law.

But as I’ve said, young people are the driving force for progress. While social media does have its problems, what with disinformation and giving legitimacy to regressive narratives, it has also given people more of a voice for social change and to challenge injustices. Based on what we’ve seen recently, one is hopeful that the voice for change is winning out. Ireland has come a long way but we still have a way to go, so our work goes on. I’m grateful to be part of it.

Stephen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Political Science (2004) and Master’s degree in Applied Social Research (2005) from Trinity College Dublin. In 2015, he completed the Barrister-at-Law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns. Prior to his current role, Stephen worked as Senior Research and Policy Programme Manager with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), as Policy and Research Officer with Pavee Point, the national Traveller and Roma organisation; Research Officer with the National Council on Ageing and Older People and Consultant Researcher for the Health Services Executive (HSE).

Women in Law

We spend a lot of time celebrating the progress being made in diversity and gender equality in the legal industry. However, every so often we come across a statistic or study that makes us stop and realise just how much more work needs to be done to invest in female talent and to get rid of gender bias.

One that stood out to us recently was the realisation that still only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs. Add to that the continuing pattern across industries that the higher up the ranks a woman gets, the pay gap widens, as seen in a study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Even women who have branched out on their own find they come up against more barriers to progress than their male counterparts. Female founders and business leaders are struggling to achieve investment – a truly shocking 91% of publicly announced growth company cash investment deals were companies without a single female founder.

Within law, the picture is just as disheartening. Though there are many measures being taken to improve opportunities for women, they don’t seem to be having the effect one would hope. A McKinsey study of North American law firms, Women in the Workplace 2017, found only 19% of equity partners are women, and women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than are men

All Talk, No Action on Gender Bias?

It appears for all the progress in conversations around the importance of enabling more women to succeed and thrive in her chosen career path, there is a huge gap between acknowledging problems and taking the steps to address them. Gender bias is still very much present in big business decisions.

Why are companies, law firms and investors still reluctant to put their money where their mouth is? Here are just some of the lingering problems preventing investment in female talent, and the measures that need be taken to resolve them.

Problem #1 Unconscious Gender Bias

Investors, employers and company boards are all too often surrounded by people that look and think the way they do – the all too familiar ‘Old Boys Club’. This is not necessarily down to overt, conscious sexism or aversion to diversity – more that people don’t see the problem with being surrounded by people who look like and have similar backgrounds to themselves. It is important to confront the gender bias that we hold and teach ways to overcome them.

Measures to take: Facebook recently revealed that they have created an anti bias training course for employees, to help them interrupt and correct bias where they see it in the workplace. The company has also shared information, videos and presentations on its website for public access, so this a good place to start for anyone thinking of implementing their own anti-bias training for themselves or their employees.

Problem #2 Caregivers and Flexible Working

Employers are still far more concerned about women taking time out to have children or to care for family members than they are about men. Though parental and caring responsibilities are becoming more equally shared, women remain primary caregivers in our society, and therefore either have to juggle endlessly or step back from their career path. Women with family commitments, or those simply seen as being of childbearing age/circumstance may still be overlooked for promotion or ‘demanding’ roles due to the reluctance to allocate for flexible working.

Measures to take: It’s time for more organisations to take flexible working seriously as a wider part of company culture, rather than a case by case solution to a problem. Employers and employees both play a role in making this happen. The Law Society of Ireland provides a clear and comprehensive guide to conversations and statistics around flexible working practices. The more commonplace flexible working becomes in our industry, the less barriers primary caregivers will face in career progression.

Problem #3 Lack of Incentivisation

Something that is often missing from the conversations around inequality is incentives for organisations to invest efforts to tackle the gender bias problem for the benefit of all. There is real pressing need for companies to invest in female talent to drive extraordinary returns and the economy forward.

Measures to take: Look at the proof of the business case for gender equality. This McKinsey study is a few years old but shows just how essential female talent is for competitiveness, with companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity diversity statistically less likely to achieve above average monetary returns compared to other similar companies. Obelisk Support is also living proof that tearing up the traditions and focusing on both men and women who want to work differently can lead to big things – global expansion, policy influence, award recognition, and being an important part of the drive for change in the legal industry. We have seen first hand the rewards that can be reaped from investing in female talent.

Problem #4 Lingering Belief in Inequality

Underlying all these issues is that a small but significant portion of society still believes that women are not equal to men in terms of ability and potential to lead and play the same roles in society. That is a far bigger problem to address, but facing up to this uncomfortable reality can help shape conversations we need to have to deconstruct societal imbalance and change thinking.

Measures to take: There is no single remedy to this overarching issue, just the continuation of discussion and of efforts to change what we can in our own pool in order to create a ripple effect. Despite slower progress than we might have expected in some areas, it is important not to lose hope and realise that small changes come together to change the culture at large. We are heading in the right direction to eradicate these ideas once and for all.