Next year the UK will celebrate 100 years since women were allowed to become solicitors.
In 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was enforced meaning women were no longer prevented from training for and joining professions such as veterinary and accountancy, as well as law.
Amongst the pioneers who broke free of the shackles by becoming MPs, jurors and magistrates, Madge Easton Anderson in 1920 became the first woman to practice as a solicitor in the UK. Of course, a series of milestones have been achieved since then and The First 100 Years project, backed by the Bar Council and Law Society in the UK will celebrate the achievements of women in law over the past 100 years.
However a very important aspect of their campaign is to look at how opportunities can still be improved to make sure all women are treated equally in the legal profession, and unfortunately there are still a number of challenges for women in law and change isn’t happening quickly enough. For instance, in England and Wales, despite women making up 48% of the profession, 33% are partners, and after much scrutiny over the gender pay gap between male and female lawyers, it was found that women partners earn 24% less than their male counterparts.
In the UK, law firms have started to reassess how they can help women progress up the ranks. These range from mentorships, shared parental leave, returnships and flexible working. There are also now more opportunities than ever for legal professionals to become consultants, progressing on a different career path to partnership, and having the autonomy to choose the projects they wish to work on, and when.
However, the UK isn’t the only one trying to tackle this, countries around the world are too, including those within the Asia-Pacific region.
Do female lawyers in Asia face similar challenges?
There has been significant advancements for women in the region over recent years. For example, Hong Kong’s Law Society earlier this year appointed Melissa Kaye Pang, the first female President of the 110 year-old group.
The Financial Times reported this year that in the Asia-Pacific region, 35% of women were partners. This is higher than the UK’s percentage. In Singapore, many law firms are led by women and Rachel Eng, deputy chair of WongPartnership, credits government policies which help women with childcare.
The Law Society of Singapore organised its Women in Practice Taskforce earlier this year looking at issues facing women in the legal profession to help encourage and support current and future generations. Australia is trailing behind. Despite women holding senior positions in judicial office, it was found in 2017 that Australian firms only have a quarter of female partners.
The Singapore government has also offered employers the opportunities to apply for an ‘enhanced work-life grant’, which helps support their employees who wish to work flexibly and improve their work / life balance.
To support women across the globe in the legal profession, it is clear that although serious issues such as unconscious bias need to be tackled to prevent gender discrimination, offering different ways of working to help support women in law can make a big difference. Some female lawyers may have to juggle childcare with work, and if more firms offer initiatives to help them balance this with their legal work, they may be more likely to retain and help progress talented employees. For example this could range from helping pay / create childcare centres in the firm, to allowing more flexible working so women can balance their work and childcare more easily. Working as a legal consultant is also a growing option for women who need more flexibility in their legal careers.
With the first 100 years nearly upon us, this shouldn’t be just a time for reflection but a call to action too, to ensure that within the next 100 years there is equality for all genders in the legal profession.