Employment law is a fast-moving area, and it’s rare that we have cause to look back at any piece of legislation of more than 20-30 years vintage. This year, though, we’re making an exception to celebrate the centenary of the (catchily-titled) Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. That Act finally paved the way for female law graduates to qualify and practice as solicitors and barristers. As a (currently) all-female firm, we definitely think that’s something worth raising a glass to!
Incredibly, prior to the 1919 Act women were also disqualified from jury service. It was July 1920, and actually in Bristol, that a prosecuting counsel was first able to open a case with the words ‘ladies and gentlemen of the jury’. We wonder how many historical crime dramas have got that one wrong…
It was 1948 and 1949 before Scotland and England respectively got their first female King’s Counsel (Margaret Kidd, Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton) and 1965 saw the appointment of the first female High Court Judge (Elizabeth Lane). We had a female prime minister two years before CMS Cameron McKenna became the first city law firm to appoint a female partner in 1981 (Catherine Fiona Woolf). In 2017 Lady Hale was appointed as President of the UK Supreme Court, meaning it had taken 98 years from date of the Act for a woman to fill the most senior judicial post in the nation.
Setting employment law in the context of that timeline, it’s worth remembering that in 1919 the minimum school leaving was still 13. (We bet most of our clients don’t fancy adding dealing with stroppy teenagers to their HR to-do list!) Up to the end of the Second World War it was normal in most manual occupations to have work a six-day week, often with only one week of paid holiday. Statutory rights to notice and redundancy pay came in in the mid-1960s, with race discrimination first outlawed in 1965. It took another 10 years before sex discrimination was outlawed at work.
The roll-call of stars mentioned above is worth celebrating, but for many in legal practice, as in other sectors, the glass ceiling remains a solid reality. Statistics are published with depressing regularity showing that although men and women qualify as lawyers in roughly equal number, men remain dominant in the higher-paying and more senior roles across the sector. Other research points to the issue of ‘intersectional’ disadvantage with women from BAME backgrounds and/or working class backgrounds, facing double disadvantage. Even in the last few days, criminal barrister Joanna Hardy has spoken out on Twitter about the ‘stag do’ atmosphere still prevalent amongst many of her male colleagues. Her comments have received national press attention, as well as recognition and support from male and female colleagues in the profession.
We hope to continue to do our bit to promote talented women joining – and remaining – in the legal sector. We also hope that some of you will be able to join us in raising a glass to the 100-year milestone at client events later this year.
In the meantime, if you (or even any promising stroppy teenagers you may know) are interested in finding out more about trailblazing women in law, do check out the First 100 Years project website