100 years on from the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919
December 2019 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and Georgia Briscoe, director of medical negligence at Fletchers Solicitors, shares her views on how far gender parity has come.
What does gender equality look like?
People should be afforded fair treatment regardless of their gender, race, sexuality, religion, disability or age. It is important that people have equal opportunities in life, not just the workplace.
It’s now 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 received Royal Assent and it is clear that we have come a long way in this period of time. I think it’s so important that we all recognise gender equality, and I don’t just mean in the workplace. Whether male or female, we need to lead by example and be passionate about our futures. Today, it’s not uncommon for a woman to be the bread winner as roles can and do flip - my family is a classic example of that.
I often speak to my young children about what equality looks like and I encourage both of my children to understand about how capable they can be. I believe it’s especially important for my nine-year-old daughter to see that she has a bright future ahead with the same opportunities as her brother, and that my son sees both his sister and his female peers as equals.
Do you feel gender equality goes beyond the number of women employed in the workplace?
Absolutely. It is also about how you treat individuals, affording them time and scope for development personally and professionally.
At Fletchers, for example, we place a lot of emphasis on social events that aren’t gender specific. We make sure we host events that are as inclusive as possible. Consequently, our social and corporate events need to represent this.
There can be a perception that within the legal sphere we all operate within a clique, a type of ‘boys club’. That may well have been true in the deep and distant past, but I’m pleased to say that this isn’t the case at Fletchers.
How have Fletchers embraced gender equality?
We’re a forward-thinking business. We don’t rest, we never have, and we take equality very seriously.
You can see this within our management and team structure. In January, I will have been at Fletchers for five years and I’ve seen a huge growth in recruitment of a number of women in senior positions. In 2019, we now have a 70% female-strong workforce across the firm. That in itself must be unique but it also demonstrates that there’s no glass ceiling here.
Furthermore, Fletchers’ continued support of non-traditional working patterns, such as flexible working, means that men and women alike are better able to return to work after, for example, starting a family, caring for friends or family or recovering from a serious illness themselves.
The business’s recruitment model also has a part to play in our gender equality, for which credit is due to Rob Fletcher for his forward-thinking approach in actively seeking out legal talent from a variety of avenues, rather than limiting ourselves to, for example, applications from certain schools.
The firm actively encourages all to progress and develop. If you see an opportunity and want to take it, it can be yours regardless of gender, race, religion or disability. I believe that the firm, and I, actively encourage equality.
From a client’s position, why is gender parity important?
It is very rare that a client asks specifically for a particular gender to lead their case, in my personal experience this has only happened a handful of times and in extremely sensitive circumstances. A client is more interested in a firm that understands their needs and is empathetic. When you put yourself in a client’s shoes, empathy is key to earning their trust and understanding their individual situation. That should never change regardless of a lawyer’s gender.
That doesn’t mean to say a client won’t be able to distinguish between a firm that leads on equality and one that doesn’t care for it. Inequality rarely stays in-house now, which is evident through the window of social media and customer forums.
Why isn’t gender equality being addressed?
A great amount of progress has been made, however allegations of harassment, which continue to surface, highlight the negative impact that certain behaviour can have on a woman’s career and life in general. It is crucial that men and women work together to ensure women have the same rights and opportunities as men in all areas of life. When it comes to gender equality, Britain currently ranks 17th out of 129 nations across the world, a world where only six countries give women equal legal work rights as men. We clearly have a long way to go.
The gender pay gap is still too large, currently as high as 23% in some sectors. For women that don’t work and are the “care givers” they are also therefore greater affected by spending cuts. Women in the workplace still worry about planning for a family and taking time for maternity leave which, in 2019, has to be an area of concern. Despite being able to share maternity/paternity leave, it clearly doesn’t go far enough.
The attitudes of some towards women in business also needs to change. There can still be a very outdated perception that a professional woman can’t be stylish and have substance behind the exterior. This is incorrect – indeed, I continue to stand in awe of the many successful women representing my industry.
We’ve come a long way, but we’re still far behind. For me, it can also boil down to how you take your opportunities. Do you want it enough? You just must embrace those chances.