It is time to impose quotas on law firms for the number of women at both equity partner and management level as “years of talking” about diversity have failed to drive sufficient change, a leading campaigner has argued.
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years project, also called for an end to salaried partnership status, describing the “rigid and inflexible structures” in many law firms as the main obstacles stopping women’s progress to senior positions.
Ms Denis-Smith, a one-time Linklaters solicitor who also runs alternative legal services provider Obelisk Support, said: “One hundred years ago, the battle was for participation in our legal system. That battle has been won, with more women than men now entering the profession.
“What we now need is to see equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving the same remuneration.
“Women are still not sufficiently represented at equity level, amongst QCs or in the judiciary and when they are, they are not paid as much as their male counterparts. We should be demanding equal representation and pay.”
Ms Denis-Smith said much of the problem was structural, with the ‘salaried partner’ position – which is “so often where senior women find themselves” – giving firms the cover of higher female partner numbers without voting rights.
“When women are not adequately represented at the top things do not change,” she said.
The solicitor added: “I have come to the belief that quotas are necessary. Self-regulation doesn’t work and will only take us so far.
“What we have learnt from history is that change sometimes needs to be forced. There are many firms and chambers out there who recognise the importance of diversity but are hampered by industrial levels of inflexibility.
“The reality is that our workplaces can be incredibly rigid, inflexible and artificial places that don’t reflect our real lives. We need to start from the top, unravelling the practices and structures that do not work for women and increasingly, many men.
“We need to interrogate working conditions to see if they are fit for purpose rather than the expectation being that women should fit into them.”
The First 100 Years is a ground-breaking project charting the journey of women in the legal profession.
Launched in 2014, the five-year project began with the aim of creating an online library of 100 stories about women who have shaped the legal profession since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers, to the present day.
As support from all corners of the profession has grown, The First 100 Years has grown into a celebration of women’s role in the profession, with an extensive programme of activities and events planned in the run-up to the centenary of the Act in late 2019.
On 8 March, International Women’s Day, First 100 Years will be at the Law Society all day to photograph as many women in law as possible as part of a new national campaign. See here for details.