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Crown Court Gradient

Strengthening equity for women in the legal profession

Professor Ruth Sutton
April 30, 2024

Across all facets of society, gender inequality and inequity has long been an issue. In law, where tradition and ceremony are core pillars of practice, it can be difficult to establish new ways of working that equally benefit everybody and support social progress. You may, or may not be, surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1995 that women barristers were permitted to don trousers in the courtroom. Even more years passed before Baroness Hale became the first female President of the Supreme Court in 2017. Then came Dame Sue Carr – appointed in 2023 as the first Lord Chief Justice, necessitating an historic title change to Lady Chief Justice. Despite the progress made by these admirable women, there is still much more to be done and the journey towards an equitable teaching, learning and practising landscape within law endures.

When the Supreme Court launched its pop-up exhibition on ‘100 years of women at the Bar’, celebrating the great women in law and their impacts on the sector, it inspired us to host an event to bring together speakers within the legal profession to discuss the all-important journey towards equity.

The consensus from discussions at the event was that, through the resilience and perseverance of female predecessors, the sector had come a long way in the past century – but there are still gaps in equity impacting both men and women. The best example of this is the ‘parenthood penalty’ which highlights the disparity in career advancement opportunities for those who have children due to stigmas that their priorities and capacity don’t align with the demands of the industry. This means at some point in their career, many parents feel they must unfairly choose between having a family or advancing their career, with the burden of the choice still mostly falling on women.

61 per cent of solicitors are women, yet only 35 per cent of partners at firms are women. These figures showcase the inarguable impacts of systemic gender inequity on career advancement. However, while unjust, they are not unmovable. The majority of law students in the UK are women, in fact 69 per cent of applicants in 2021 were women. This means there is great opportunity to turn the tide and inspire more female law students to reach further throughout their careers whilst advocating for a more equitable system.

61 per cent of solicitors are women, yet only 35 per cent of partners at firms are women. Quote

Representation is a key factor. We often use the term “if you can see it, you can be it” as a reminder of just how important representation is in motivating the next generation. When they join our degree courses, many of our students report they suffer from imposter syndrome, which research suggests affects more female than male students on average, and don’t feel confident speaking up or claiming space within the law sector or even lecture hall. To address this, we regularly showcase a wide range of role models relevant to all our students within classes, learning from their careers and celebrating their achievements. This helps students to identify with them and connects the understanding that if their role model can be successful, so can they.

As part of classroom practice, and when guiding and advising students, we always try to employ a positive outlook and compassionate leadership style. This infuses lessons with kindness and empathy that helps more students to feel comfortable participating in class and gives them the space to develop in a way that doesn’t force conformation to a certain mould. We also always encourage students to be ambitious and work to show them exactly how they can achieve their goals. A big part of this is instilling the confidence to be independent, such as encouraging them to design and complete their own unique projects. Another great way of building confidence and guiding students on their educational and career journey is through exposure. For example, working in partnership with the team at Hill Dickinson, we were able to give students the opportunity to attend a mock inquest where they could network with legal professionals and understand the role of a solicitor in practice.

While we’ve already made great strides, there is still much work to be done to ensure both the legal profession, and society, can benefit from the great talent and fresh perspectives graduates bring to the table, or bar. Young people are at the very core of this, as it is their world that will look different than ours, so we must help them to break down the barriers to an equitable sector that benefits everyone.

This article was written in collaboration with Ian Bowden, Senior Lecturer and Solicitor Advocate, School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Chester.

Ruth Sutton

Professor Ruth Sutton is a Barrister and Head of School of Law and Social Justice at The University of Chester.

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