Gender inequality in the legal profession – distant past or a current concern?

Sarah Thomas has worked as a barrister in the UK for the past decade. She is responsible for addressing equality concerns within her chambers and further afield. Sarah is a pseudonym.


You have a lovely smile.


Would you like to go for a drink with me?


Would you like to go for a drink with my social worker?


Dr Ivy Williams was called to the English Bar in 1922. She completed her legal examinations at the Society of Oxford Home Students in 1903 but was prevented from receiving her degree until 1920. Immediately after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force, Ivy joined the Inner Temple as a student. After being called to the Bar with a certificate of honour (first class), Ivy taught law at the University of Oxford.

In 1923, Ivy was the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law for her published legal writings. Ivy was elected an Honorary Fellow of St Anne’s College, University of Oxford (formerly the Society of Oxford Home Students) in 1956.


No wonder you won. You can just smile at the judge and he’ll do whatever you want.


Helena Florence Normanton QC was the first female practising barrister in England. After an application to join Middle Temple was refused in 1918, Helena lodged a petition with the House of Lords and reapplied in 1919. She was finally called to the Bar in November 1922.

Helena was the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, the first woman to appear at the Old Bailey, the first woman to appear at the High Court and the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client. In 1949, Helena and Rose Heilbron were the first two female King’s Counsel at the English Bar.


You look too young to be a barrister.


This piece of legislation was written before you were born. You wouldn’t know it.


In 1949, Dame Rose Heilbron DBE QC became the second youngest King’s Counsel since 1783. Rose was the first woman to lead the defence in a murder case, the first female recorder appointed and the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey. She ended her career as a High Court Judge and Treasurer of Gray’s Inn, the first woman to lead one of the Inns of Court.

When Rose defended gangster George Kelly in 1949, he allegedly commented that he was ‘not having a Judy defend [him]’. Rose was later named the Daily Mirror’s ‘Woman of the Year’ for her fearless defence advocacy in the Kelly case.


Women are more suited to family law. You’re more emotional.


Are you sure you want to be a barrister? You seem so nice. Why not be a solicitor?


Women were not allowed to practise law until 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed. In 1913, the Law Society refused to allow four women applicants to sit the Law Society examinations. The women took their case to the Court of Appeal but lost: they were deemed not to be ‘persons’ within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843.

Following the passing of the 1919 Act, the first four women to pass their Law Society examinations in 1922 were Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes. There are nearly 70,000 female solicitors practising today.


You don’t have to sleep with him. Just flirt with him so he’ll give you work.


Still not married? Tick tock.


We’ll be losing you soon to have a family, no doubt.


Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane DBE had no formal university education but began studying the law when her husband decided to become a barrister. Elizabeth was called to the bar in 1940 and appointed King’s Counsel in 1950.

In 1962, Elizabeth became the first female County Court judge. In 1965, she became the first woman to sit as a judge in the High Court. Elizabeth sat in the Court of Appeal following retirement and became an honorary fellow of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.


She doesn’t need help on maternity leave – surely her husband will pay the bills?


She won’t be coming back anyway. They rarely ever do.


Many people would wish professional sexism into the distant past but I have heard all of these comments during my decade working as a barrister. They were made by court users ranging from clients to judges, male and female. These people were frequently well-meaning, often kind but universally ignorant about what it is like to be a young woman practising at the Bar.

A dangerous woman is one who is not distracted by antiquated attitudes. She is one who can challenge stereotyping and a persistently patriarchal hierarchy to claim the career that she deserves. One who will knock down a few hurdles to give the next generation of women a clear run. If she can aim for equality while embracing solidarity (with like-minded women and with like-minded men), so much the better.

There is still a long way to go. Whilst half of those called to the Bar in 2015 were women, only 35% of working barristers are female. 24% of judges and 12% of QCs are women. There is currently only one female justice in the Supreme Court.

And whilst there is now an almost equal division of male and female solicitors in the UK, fewer than 25% at partnership level are women. Even between solicitors with the same level of experience, the gender pay gap can be as high as 42%. The implementation of flexible working policies remains problematic and some women still struggle to return to work after having children. At the self-employed Bar, a policy for parental leave was drafted over a decade ago. Many chambers have still not adopted it.

Many argue that it is simply taking time for progress to percolate through the system. After all, the law is rarely swift to change and women have only been lawyers for a century. But it is hard to understand how anyone can justify a 42% gender pay gap, which effectively requires women to work for free from August to December. It is equally hard to comprehend why, on a panel of twelve, eleven of the judges in our most influential court should be men.

And it is very hard to grasp – harmless as it may seem – why any judge would consider my urgent court application less worthy of comment than my smile.