100 Years of Women in Law
Over the last 100 years, there has been seismic change towards the acceptance and equality of women in the work place. Significant dates, starting with the introduction of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 (“the Act 1919”), led the way for later transformational legislation that has changed the lives of women in the UK to the level of equality now experienced.
Collectively, the changes to employment law have been remarkable and the impact on UK employers and employees has also been remarkable. We have come a long way in a hundred years.
In the shadow of the 100 Years Anniversary of “The Act 1919”, we look at the key dates of legislative change that has influenced modern equality at work for women and what it has meant for women establishing careers in the legal profession.
Thanks to Eliza Orme, one of the first women to obtain a law degree in 1888 and be permitted to go on and qualify as a lawyer, a great deal has changed in the last 100 years to enable progress for women in the law...
1882: The Married Women’s Property Act
- married women given the right to own their share of the family home
It was only following the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 that married women were given the right to own their share of the family home, prior to this all domestic property was legally owned by men. To be clear, this dispensation was only for ‘married’ women, therefore it left a gap in the equality of women to own property for those who chose not to marry, or unmarried spinsters.
Since 1882, a lot has changed. Women can now own their own property and have their own mortgages, something which would have been unheard of 100 years ago.
1918: Representation of the People Act 1918
- gives the vote to women over 30yrs who meet a minimum property qualification
1919: The changing view of women in law
- minor Bills and positive comments in the right direction
The first bill introduced relating to women in the legal profession was the Barristers and Solicitors (Qualification of Women) Bill in 1919: Lord Buckmaster’s comment: “Nobody thinks that the passage of this bill is going to flood the legal profession with women. It will enable a few women, who are peculiarly qualified, to earn an honourable living.”¹
Lord Birkenhead in 1919, Treasurer of Gray’s Inn and Lord Chancellor commented on the proposed restriction of only admitting women qualifying as magistrates once they had reached 30 years... “If any such woman is able to satisfy not only the Advisory Committee but the Lord Lieutenant and the Lord Chancellor, she would be a rather remarkable young women, and might conceivably be a valuable addition to the bench.”²
1919: The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (“the Act 1919”)
- introduces equal employment status for women
In 1919, this landmark Act came into force. It was revolutionary and transformational. Within the legal profession, “The Act 2019” meant that it was no longer only men who could become lawyers, barristers and magistrates. It wasn’t until the introduction of “The Act 2019”, that women who had obtained a law degree were permitted to take their solicitor examinations and qualify. This change opened-up the very start of the long battle women still have for full equality. “The Act 2019” was not without its limitations as it still did not prevent the right for judges to appoint all male juries and it did not allow women to enter the foreign and diplomatic service, but it was an important step on the road to equality.
1922: Changes in the Legal Profession
- women can become barristers and solicitors
In 1922 the first women barristers and solicitors were introduced. At the same time, women were allowed the right to inherit on the same terms as men (it is almost hard to believe that women at that time were so tightly controlled by the views of men).
1928: The Equal Franchise Act
- introduces voting rights for women over 21 years
When researching the introduction of “The Act 1919” for the purposes of this article, I was not surprised to learn that it was only passed in order to prevent the Women’s Emancipation Bill, which would have not only permitted women to join the Professions but also would have granted women an equal footing in terms of being able to vote and sit in the House of Lords. The 1928 Equal Franchise Act was a small victory in the right direction, allowing women the vote from 21yrs, not 30yrs, but it wasn’t until 1958 that women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords.
Following “The Act 1919”, equality was only possible for those who were determined enough to seize the opportunity, with many women still feeling that they lacked the ‘fight’ within them to go up against men. I am certain that it would have been a terribly overwhelming environment for those brave and inspirational women who led the way for equality in the legal profession. I can imagine that not all of the men involved were welcoming and open to what was then a radical change.
1958: Life Peerages Act
- women admitted to the House of Lords .³
1970: The Equal Pay Act
- women workers fight for and receive equal pay
It was not until 51 years after “The Act 1919”, thanks to the brave women of Dagenham’s Ford manufacturing, that employers were forced to treat both men and women equally with regard to their salaries, preventing employers from giving higher salaries to men for like or equal work. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced as a result. It was based on the Equal Pay Act of 1963 of the United States and has been mostly superseded by Part 5, chapter 3, of the Equality Act 2010.
1975: The Sex Discrimination Act
- women fight for equal treatment in work and society
It was only a short five-year wait that saw the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. This made it unlawful for women (or men) to be treated less favourably because of their sex. It is understood that the primary role of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was to prevent the banks from requiring women to provide a male guarantor when applying for a credit card or loan, regardless of her income/earnings. Additionally, on a lighter note, the introduction meant that women could be served equally at wine bars when attending with their male colleagues. Women could now own their own property and apply for a mortgage if they liked from lenders who had previously only dealt with men.
During 1975 women were also permitted the right to take maternity leave and no longer be discriminated against, or ultimately dismissed, for being pregnant. As an Employment Lawyer, it is paining to realise that until the introduction of the Employment Protection Act 1975 it would have been permissible for women to be dismissed for having a baby, dismissed for taking time off to care for their baby and ultimately penalised for being a mother. Fast forward to 2019 and, although sadly this type of conduct does still exist, we now thankfully have suitable laws in place to support women who are discriminated against and provide compensation for this conduct.
2010: The Equality Act
- women receive legal status as equals to men
In 2010, The Equality Act came into force. This effectively combined multiple pieces of legislation and considered discrimination as a whole, rather than relying on independent pieces of legislation to prevent less favourable and unfavourable treatment of men and women (amongst other protected characteristics such as Disability, Age, Sexual Orientation, etc.). A part of this legislation takes on the continued fight for equal pay, setting out parameters in which women (and men) can seek judicial support if they are not being paid sufficiently for like work and/or work of equivalent value.
2017: Gender Pay Gap Information Regulations
- employers required to declare gap in gender pay, a long way to go
The final piece in the legal story is the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 which came into force in 2017. Employers with more than 250 staff were forced to report salary figures for their male and female employees alike. The first reports made in April 2018 showed a 17.9% pay gap. One year later, in April 2019, 78% of companies overall had a pay gap in favour of men, 14% favoured women and the rest reported no difference.
Since its introduction, the Gender Pay Gap Regulations applied pressure on employers in an attempt to prevent sex discrimination in the workplace. It is clear that women in some professions are still paid less than their male colleague equivalents.
2018: Ignorance Still Exists
- men and women ignorant of 2010 legislation
UK 2018: 1 in 3 men and women
do not know that
pay discrimination is illegal
Data released in late 2018 by the Fawcett Society, a group which campaigns for gender equality and women's rights, showed 1 in 3 men and women do not know that pay discrimination is illegal. It’s worrying to see this lack of knowledge resonating. It demonstrates that a large proportion of UK men and women are oblivious to sex discrimination and equal pay levels.
2019: Employer Equal Pay Statistics
- available for the first time
Spurred on by the #MeToo movement, the Gender Pay Gap has been an issue that has continued to hit headlines, putting pressure on the Government and employers to act. In 2019, the statistics show that the disparity of earnings between men and women is still unbalanced with women earning on average 9.1% per hour less for full time employees in the UK, or £1.32 per hour less than men.
2019: The Present
- Are women turning inequality upon men?
It is not only pay that has been a topic of discussion over the years. Women have become much more outspoken and confident about addressing topics relating to equality. No longer labelled as ‘home-breaking activists’ or ‘angry feminists’, more women are now in leadership roles within large organisations. Having a woman at the helm of a company is not something that should be considered out-of-the-ordinary, but it is still an unnatural act for some companies. As an employment lawyer myself, I see discriminatory stigma and animosity for the willingness of some men to report to women. Thankfully this is slowly disappearing, but there is still some way to go.
Has the balance of equality
shifted against men?
After speaking to several men, both in the legal profession and outside it, their perception is that the balance of equality has shifted against men, with modern men now feeling disadvantaged in comparison. For example, there are now many professional female-only networking groups, many female-only employers and many female-only social groups, leaving men feeling like they would be met with outrage and condemnation if they were to set-up similar ‘male only’ groups. This has left men feeling discriminated against, maybe for the first time in our history.
Some men believe that they are being overtaken by women in the work place because of the business necessity, requirement and obligation to be seen to be diverse and equal, with employers now so worried about ‘doing the wrong equality thing’ that their policies over-compensate in favour of women.
2019: The Legal Profession Today
- Are women turning inequality on men?
It’s been a hundred years since “The Act 1919” and still only 25% of Top Tier law firms are made up of women.
2019: 25% of Top Tier law firms
are made up of women
This may be about to change, with recent statistics showing that 63% of newly qualified lawyers are women. Men in the law will soon start to experience the pinch of female competition in their careers and will have to match the talents of female counterparts for career advancement.
The last 100 years is a real demonstration of how far women in law and other professions have come and an example of what determination and willpower can achieve. Women lawyers before us fought really hard to give us the opportunities that we have today. I am certain that the introduction of women to the legal profession has certainly had a bearing on the legislation that has allowed us women more equal rights. How else would it have been passed?
As women in the legal profession we must remember the women that faced and overcame discrimination and adversity, and not take our current progress for granted. We must also be kind to our male colleagues, for fear that, left unchallenged; women could evolve a discriminatory attitude towards them.
At Lawson-West Solicitors
80% of our workforce are women and
50% of our Board of Directors are women.
Vaishali Thakerar is a Director and Head of Employment at Lawson-West Solicitors in Leicestershire and defends clients on a daily basis who face discrimination in the work place.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 0116 212 1000.
[¹] [Hansard, House of Lords Debates 11 Mar 1919 vol 33 c591].
[²] [Hansard, House of Lords Debates 25 Jun 1919 c1066-7].
House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee Gender pay gap reporting
Law Society article
History of Women in Law