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The theme for International Women’s Day 2018 is Press for Progress. And press we must. We have come a long, long way but there is still much work to be done. A familiar refrain which resonates not only with all women who work in our profession whether as solicitors, barristers, or in any role around law but further afield. Of course, we have made much progress, on paper at least. 2019 will mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to become lawyers. Women now outnumber men in terms of law school graduates and before another couple of decades are up will become the majority. But do the numbers add up and will they bring about real change? I would suggest we need to do more. To Press for Progress. To Press for Real Change. For social and cultural change.
We have our first woman head of the Supreme Court. A personal hero and mentor of mine Baroness Hale has done much for women in showing that anything is possible. But she has also along the way spoken candidly about the challenges which face women at work in law. Against quotas, as am I, she endorses the view that talent will show up and will make its way to the top. I agree with this but there are still too many obstacles in everyday working life that ought to have fallen by the wayside long ago. I’ll be kind and call them anachronisms.
So, what are the issues still facing women in law and what can be done? Sexual harassment has reared its head in recent months and must be eliminated. The culture of silence that exists in many firms and sets around this must be broken. There must be consequences for unwanted conduct that has no place in a civilised society. And women who speak out must be protected not vilified. Work is still not a safe place for women. Employers have a responsibility to change this culture. HR must lead the way. The regulators might also lead a charge. There is no place in our profession for people who disrespect others and cause harm. Zero tolerance and real consequences is the only way to eliminate this conduct. And everyday sexism (thanks Laura Bates for your work for all women): there is still much low-level degrading banter at work that some would have us believe is harmless. It is not. It denigrates and demotivates. Again, cultural change and understanding is required. Over to regulators, heads of firms and chambers there too. Many solicitors firms do offer flexible working for mothers but not all; and sometimes there is a battle to get any concessions. Why is this not a given that is available without even having to ask? Why is it not proactively offered by employers as a way of showing women they are valued and can have a career as well as a family. Every day is a battleground.
We will know progress has been achieved when women can come to work without fear of unwanted conduct, with the freedom to choose whether to have a family and with the opportunity to thrive in their profession without being judged on their sex. It should be a non-issue. Let’s press to make it reality.
Karen Jackson is an expert in disability discrimination law and other health-related issues in employment, with particular focus on mental health but also issues facing women at work (maternity/pregnancy/sex discrimination and sexual harassment). Karen’s boutique firm, didlaw, was established in 2008 and specialises in discrimination in employment. Karen is a regular commentator on discrimination issues in the press and broadcast media.