This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to enter the legal profession for the first time.
Last year, the amazing team behind The First 100 Years project invited me to share my views on the single thing which would make a real and positive difference in achieving equality for women within the legal profession. The challenges faced and need for solutions are not limited to the legal profession. Given my interest in diversity and inclusion I have a few ideas, ranging from agile working to mentoring and unconscious bias training. None of these are novel to anyone with some degree of interest in achieving equality in the work place. These initiatives are indispensable in the quest for achieving equality for women in the law, but they are by no means the solution to a problem as ingrained in the make-up of our society making as gender inequality is.
The real gender imbalance in the legal field (and I am only talking about present-day Britain, as we all know that in too many other places around the world gender balance is not and will not be a priority any time soon) is apparent as one looks higher up the ranks. It is not breaking news that the higher up the business food-chain you look, the starker the disparity between the number of men and women is. This problem is one faced by women irrespective of their chosen career path.
I have asked myself many times, how is it that we are still facing the same issues as our mothers’ generation was? When are we going to stop hiding behind the “this is how things have always been done” attitudes and start challenging widely accepted social conventions, pre-conceptions and stereotypes? Why are we still shying away from the sometimes difficult conversations that we need to have in order to drive the change? Why is women’s performance still judged through a different lens than the one men are appraised through? Why, at least in a business context, are we placing less value on so called “female attributes”, like compassion and patience, than the value placed on “masculine” ones, like assertiveness and courage.
Progress has certainly been made in that more and more people are aware of these issues than they were 20-30 years ago. For all its value however, awareness is only the first step towards positive change. So why are we still stagnating when there is so much information out there, so many books and podcasts, seminars and initiatives aimed at raising awareness and pushing things forward? Only since having children have I started to understand that we, as a society, condition our kids by their gender from the day they are born. From the colour of the clothes we dress them in, to the toys that we buy for them, to the way we react to a boy taking charge of a game (as opposed to a girl doing the same) and the type of activities we choose for them, we pre-set the way they will think of themselves and others when they are grown-ups.
Given all of the above, it is hard to extract a single thing which would make a real and positive difference in achieving equality for women, both within the legal profession and beyond. However, to my mind (and what I told The First 100 Years) a key place to start must be education and the way we deliver it. We must educate ourselves and our peers and, most importantly, our children about how far women have come and the lessons we have learnt from the challenges faced by those who came before and opened so many doors for us. We must educate girls and boys from as early on as possible that their voices are equally important and it is their voices that will drive the change to ensure that this type of conversation will no longer be necessary in another 100 years (or, hopefully, much earlier than that)!
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #BalanceforBetter.