Glass ceiling yet to crack

Ever since the first female solicitor qualified back in 1922, women have been steadily making their mark on the legal profession. In 1995, for the first time ever, more women than men were admitted to the Solicitors Roll – and just over 50 per cent of entrants have been female since.

At the Bar, Ivy Williams of Inner Temple became the first female barrister in 1922 and the first women took silk in 1949. Since then more and more women have been called to the bar. There were 788 woman barristers in 1987, today there are 2,115.

Yet, as recently as 10 years ago, there were still sets with no women members and, in 1993, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay expressed concern at the low numbers of women applying for Queen's Counsel. Only 60 of today's 925 QCs are female.

In the judiciary, progress has been even slower and the first female judge, Elizabeth Lane, was not appointed until 1962. Today, there are seven women High Court judges and Dame Butler Sloss is the only female Court of Appeal judge.

From first joining the profession, women have campaigned for equality. Carrie Morrison, the first female solicitor, together with four fellow law students, formed the 1919 club to support women lawyers when she qualified, which was subsequently renamed the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) in the mid-1980s.

The AWS has grown from 1,200 members 10 years ago to about 8,000 now. Former chair Alison Parkinson says women have come “an enormously long way” in the past 10 years, highlighting the Law Society's creation of an Equal Opportunities committee and anti-discrimination code.

“One big change is that many women lawyers wear trousers to work now. Ten years ago we would never have dreamt of it,” she says. But, she adds, there is “still a battle to be fought”.

“Women are still not getting partnerships in equal numbers as they should. We need more equal representation on the Law Society council and we need to stop the problems that occur when we have babies. And, even though we are getting into the profession in equal numbers, we are not being paid equally.”

She concludes: “We are coming up to 75 years of women in the profession. We should have had the first woman president of the Law Society by now. Ten years from now I hope we will have seen the first female Lord Chancellor too.”

Parkinson's comments on partnerships and pay are borne out by numerous studies of the profession. Over the past 10 years, research has consistently shown that women solicitors receive less than their male counterparts for equivalent work.

A survey carried out in 1989 by recruitment consultant Michael Chambers found that on average women solicitors received 9 per cent less than men and, in the Midlands, women lawyers were earning 25 per cent less than their male colleagues. The findings had changed little by October 1996, when a salary survey carried out by Coopers & Lybrand on behalf of the Law Society left society president Tony Girling “saddened and ashamed”.

A survey by The Lawyer last year showed that two-thirds of solicitors thought women were disadvantaged when considered for partnership.

The problem is particularly acute at the top of the legal ladder. At one point in 1994 there were no female managing partners, chief executives or senior partners in the Top 100 firms. The situation has improved a little since then, with four female senior or managing partners in the top 100 in 1997.

A survey commissioned by Reynell Legal Recruitment in January this year revealed that one in four female assistants had suffered sexual harassment and more than half had experienced sexual discrimination.

Female members of the Bar are facing similar problems. Association of Women Barristers chair Josephine Hayes says: “At entry level, the mix of people taking the training course is virtually half and half, but, of those getting tenancies, the split is about two-thirds male, one-third female. The proportion of barristers getting silk is still predominantly male.” Hayes adds that an insufficient number of chambers have adopted a maternity policy and says women are “still hitting a glass ceiling”.

High-profile barrister Barbara Hewson says: “There have been huge developments. But progress is slow, particularly at the commercial end.”

She says women are up against a perception among certain Bar organisations that women are getting special treatment and being fast-tracked. “There is no evidence of that. But it does reflect a certain anxiety amongst some men which is unfounded but clearly there.”

The Law Society and the Bar have both taken measures to address these issues, including anti-discrimination codes, equal opportunity committees, confidential help lines and guidance on maternity rights. But in most cases the initiatives are not enforceable and it is difficult to measure their effectiveness.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle of all for women lawyers is entrance to the judiciary. As yet there are no female heads of division and only one of the 35 Lords Justices of Appeal is a woman. There are only 29 female circuit judges out of a total of 557 and only 67 of the 913 recorders are female.

Although women have been able to storm the lower ranks of the profession, they still have a long way to go. Sixteen years after the appointment of the first female supreme court judge in the US, Britain has yet to appoint a female Law Lord.

significant dates

1922 first female solicitor and barrister qualify

1923 1919 group set up. Name changed to Association of Women Solicitors in early 1980s.

1949 first female barristers take silk

1962 first female judge appointed

1988 first female Court of Appeal judge appointed

1991 Association of Women Barristers set up

1994 Law Society anti-discrimination code approved, includes maternity provisions

1994 first female secretary general of International Bar Association appointed

1995 women lawyers get go-ahead to wear trousers in court

1995 Bar equality code comes into effect

1996 Bar Council appoints first female vice-chair >

25 women who have made it

Elizabeth Appleby QC, head of 4-5 Gray's Inn Square

Mrs Justice Arden, High Court Chancery Judge, Head of Law Commission

Alison Ball QC, joint head of One Garden Court

Janice Barber, managing partner at Hempsons

Cherie Booth QC, The Lawyer Personality of the Year 199Mrs Justice Bracewell, High Court judge

Lady Justice Butler Sloss, Court of Appeal judge

Julia Chain, managing partner at Garretts

Laura Cox QC, head of Cloisters

Joanna Dodson QC, head of 14 Gray's Inn Square

Mrs Justice Ebsworth, High Court judge

Mrs Justice Hale, High Court judge

Heather Hallett QC, leader of the South Eastern Circuit and first female Bar Council vice-chair

Mrs Justice Hogg, High Court judge

Helen Grindrod QC, head of 95A Chancery Lane

Dianna Kempe QC, secretary general of the IBA/Roberta Cooper Ramo

Joy Kingsley, managing partner at Pannone & Partners

Lesley MacDonagh, managing partner at Lovell White Durrant

Dame Barbara Mills QC, director of Public Prosecutions

Eleanor Platt QC, joint head of One Garden Court

Anne Rafferty QC, head of 4 Brick Court

Patricia Scotland QC, head of 1 Gray's Inn Square

Mrs Justice Smith, High Court judge

Mrs Justice Steel, High Court judge

Rosalind Wright, director of the Serious Fraud Office