The Representation of the People Act – 100 years on

100 years today since the Representation of the People Act gave women the right to vote – where are we today?

The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed on 6 February 1918. This gave women over the age of 30 who met the specified property requirements the right to vote for the first time. Women under 30 had to wait another 10 years for the privilege to vote when the Conservative government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21 on equal terms with men.

Voting is a fundamental right, it gives one the sense of control. Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement famously stated: “We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

One year on from being granted the right to vote, women were allowed to enter the legal profession when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passed. Women were given the right to truly become the law-makers that Emmeline Pankhurst envisioned.

How much have we truly moved on?

Today’s women, in the UK at least, do not have to struggle to vote. However, today’s women in law continue to climb an uphill battle in career progression.

Last year, Lady Hale, known as a fearless advocate for women’s rights and place in law, became the first female president of the UK Supreme Court in 2017. Lady Hale then welcomed the second female justice, Jill Black, to the bench. Although this is an improvement, this still brings the total of two females out of 12 in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that women account for 61 per cent of law graduates, only 28 per cent of private practice partners are female.

In 2017, Queen’s Counsel (QC) statistics showed that from a total of 1,665 self-employed QCs only 254 were female.

The numbers are similarly disconcerting at the judicial level. In the period from 1 April 2014 to 1 April 2017, the percentage of female judges has increased from 18 per cent to 24 per cent in the Court of Appeal and 18 per cent to 22 per cent in the High Court. Although these numbers indicate growth, they certainly also indicate that the percentage remains low overall.

So if there are more women law graduates each year, why do are these statistics reverse the higher up the legal ladder you climb? Some of the main reasons cited have been lack of flexible working arrangements, lack of support and development catered for women and when it comes down to it; lack of retention of women in top positions. Many face obstacles re-entering the workforce, particularly after having children due to unaffordable childcare.

The Timewise survey on flexible working hours in September 2017 indicated that 91 per cent of women prefer flexible working, with men not far behind at 84 per cent. Allowing flexible working patterns for women employees or those with parenting responsibilities will go a great length to crack the glass ceiling that women find in progressing up the career ladder; both in law and other professions. Furthermore, if flexible work is offered, it should not be used as an excuse not to promote into higher positions.

The next generation of women lawyers need you

One of the things we women can do to help each other is stand as role models for one another. The need for this is simple: seeing someone do the job you want, with the demands and characteristics you can relate to, will motivate you to do the same.

One of the organisations committed to providing ample motivation is the First 100 Years project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, recording the journey of women in law since 1919 to inspire future generations. The project includes video stories about women in law, celebrating the past as well as the future.

The need for such projects are indispensable, although women have come far in the past 99 years, some are still faced with a glass ceiling. As a woman at the beginning of my career, nothing is more inspiring than seeing other women and men sharing stories about women in law and encouraging career progression.

Celebrate today the women who were pioneers and gave us the gift of voting, celebrate the women who believed they could push the envelope and became the first solicitor and barrister and most of all celebrate yourself for coming this far and keep going – the next generation of women will need your voice.

 Adiba Bassam is a BPTC graduate, currently working as a paralegal at 4 Paper Buildings.