The ‘Public’ Man and ‘Private’ Woman: Gender Imbalance in the Legal Profession

“The dichotomy between the private and the public is central to almost two centuries of feminist writing and political struggle; it is ultimately what the feminist movement is about.”

–– Carole Pateman

Historically, legal professions were solely available to men. Since the 19th century, society has observed a surge in the empowerment of women across the world. The first woman to obtain a law degree in England was Eliza Orme in 1888. Today, both men and women take part in the ‘public sphere’ whereas women remain the primary participants within the ‘private sphere’. The two-sphere ideology vindicates male domination inside the public sphere though women are ultimately demoted to the private sphere: ‘public’ man vs ‘private’ woman. This dichotomy essentially imbeds such patriarchal system and guarantees women oppression.

The Equality Act 2010 illustrates that men and women who perform the same level of employment must receive equal pay; concerning not only salary, but all contractual terms and conditions of employment (NB: there may be some exceptions to this in law, depending on each person’s circumstances). However, women in the workforce still suffer from gender bias in the employment process, discrimination, pay gap, negative stereotypes, sexual harassment and sexism.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) outlines women to make up 49% of law firms. In larger firms, for instance, 51% of solicitors in firms containing ten to fifty partners are women, having gone down by 3% since 2017. However, in smaller firms, women constitute of 45% of solicitors, having increased by 1% since 2017. It is evident that the more partners there are, the less female solicitors work in the firm.

The problems arise when it comes to seniority. Although the gap has been contracting recently, differences remain apparent. Approximately, there has been a 10% increase in female partners over the last six years. An example of this is the 35% of female partners in firms with two to five partners, which has increased by 1%. Therefore, lawyers and seniority vary depending on the size of the firm.

The traditional image of a ‘leader’: gender, culture, power

It is often said that masculinity is perceived as the positive and neutral whilst femininity is depicted as negative and inferior. As outlined above, disparities become apparent when looking at seniority in law firms. Leadership in the legal world is a typical male dominated one, stereotypically associating ‘leader’ and ‘man’ together. The male gender is viewed as more intelligent, assertive and resilient. The prejudice of women, on the other hand, is emotional, too soft and lacking objectivity – rendering them ‘incapable’ of leadership. Such portrayal is psychological: men are ‘leaders’ and women are ‘followers.’

Women are mainly judged based on their looks rather than their professional work ethic and are more prone to sexual harassment. But how are they going to report somebody who already obtains all authority? It is a power paradox. The myth of women ‘sleeping their way to the top’ when being promoted or appointed to a leadership role is sex discrimination and unfortunately, many deem this stereotype to be true. This accusation is an insult directed at women who are supposedly ‘unqualified’ for such positions and disrupt the unconscious collective norm. Personally, this narrative is archaic to me. Women are remarkable leaders as they are capable of balancing both professional and personal leadership skills; they check their egos and most importantly, they break down barriers and show the world that women can triumph.

The law alone cannot eliminate the deep-rooted nature of the public/private divide – only society can.

Fadma Habib

Fadma is a final year law (LLB) student at Kingston University London. She has successfully completed several work placements within the legal sector. She is now a Legal Content Writer for the Freedom Law Clinic and a Brand Ambassador for The Stephen James Partnership: Black Interns Matter. Having undertaken pro-bono work herself, she has been drawn to the aspect of working within a firm that upholds the value of such work and helping individuals from all walks of life.

Fadma Habib