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Women face a leaky pipeline in the legal profession

Three legal experts came together to explore the global impact of educating women, specifically looking through the lens of law and human rights.

Written by Alison McCarty |

Dr Mary Stiasny, Dr Rachel Adams, Professor Lisa Webley and Becca Bunce
Dr Mary Stiasny with Dr Rachel Adams, Professor Lisa Webley and Becca Bunce at the Transforming lives event.

‘Women are much more likely to leave the legal profession than are their male counterparts’ despite significant improvements in gender parity worldwide, said Professor Lisa Webley, speaking at an event held at the University of London.

Professor Webley, from the University of Birmingham, whose research explores the regulation, education and ethicality of the legal profession was one of three women legal experts who came together on Tuesday 12 June, to explore the global impact of educating women, specifically looking through the lens of law and human rights.

Professor Webley explained: ‘We’ve known for a long time that there is a ‘leaky pipeline problem’… At points where there are decisions to be made or opportunities to be taken, women on the whole are less likely to take the opportunity, or to be given the opportunity, or to decide to stay than are men.’ The leaky pipeline in the legal profession is often related to unequal notions of merit and the expectation for women to complete unpaid work at home, particularly in the context of parenting.

Joining Professor Webley with their specialist input were Dr Rachel Adams, Early Career Researcher, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Becca Bunce, Co-Director of IC Change. Dr Mary Stiasny OBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of London hosted the event.

The event was held as part of the University’s Leading Women campaign taking place throughout 2018, to mark the 150th anniversary of the University of London opening up ‘Special Examinations’ for women, which 10 years later led to the opening up of full degrees. In both instances the University of London became the first to do so.  More than 100 people, both in person and online, joined the event.

Dr Mary Stiasny opened the evening with a brief history of the University of London’s innovation for women’s education in the UK: ‘It’s been 150 years since we first welcomed women into the University, when nine women were admitted to take ‘Special Examinations’ in the presence of 17 examiners. It was another 10 years before they were permitted to take the same examinations as men…In fact, the University of London was the first university in the UK to admit women to university level education and we are proud to have been the first and are now proud to be building on this legacy’.

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Transforming lives: Women and education - Looking through the lens of law and human rights to explore the impact of educating women.

Building on its innovative access agenda, the University of London currently supports 50,000 students, half of whom are women, in 180 countries with an additional 1.4 million learners gaining access to quality higher education through its MOOCs programme available through the online Coursera platform.

Dr Stiasny added:

Women with little or no access to traditional pathways to higher education have especially benefited from the University’s distance and flexible learning programmes since 1858, as they can study at their own pace from anywhere in the world whilst balancing personal, professional and family commitments.

Although family obligations have long been viewed as a barrier to women’s entry into higher education, Dr Rachel Adams from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies presented an alternative viewpoint: ‘I think family plays a really important role in encouraging women, and encouraging them to work, especially if they have children’.  While more women are being educated today than ever before, Dr Rachel Adams explained that: ‘Despite the increase of women in education, this has largely not been matched with women in the labour market.’

Following this remark, Dr Rachel Adams highlighted several points contained within the 1963 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This bill of rights was only adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, forming part of the fairly recent history of laws to protect women’s right to education.

Professor Lisa Webley from the University of Birmingham took up this point in her comments:

Women have made huge progress over the last 150 years - we've gained access to higher education, we've gained access to career opportunities in professions. By being members of the legal profession we've been able to both embody the rights of women to participate and to champion them too, but we also need to keep in mind there is more work to be done.

Becca Bunce, Co-Director of IC Change, also works on the regulation of international law as it applies to women’s rights. She remarked on the courage of the original nine women who entered higher education, at a time when their only counterparts were male, and the tenacity women continue to exhibit when it comes to breaking down barriers.

She said:

Thinking about those nine women who came along 150 years ago, what it must have felt like to have been one of those nine. What it is like to be any woman who applies and puts herself out there, and says I am going to go for this, I am going to put myself forward. That is so tough, and it is still tough, and that is something we need to acknowledge. We need to think about how that works when we have other intersectionalities, whether that is race, disability, migration status, trans-status. There are a multitude of factors that can affect our experiences.

In her role with IC Change, Becca Bunce is working to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women to make it law in the UK. Becca is an advocate for disabled women, and the Istanbul Convention is especially topical for this area of advocacy, as disabled women are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence as other women. Early criticism of the campaign drove her passion for creating change through international law.

Becca Bunce said: ‘One of my favourite things when we started the campaign was when someone said to us, ‘This law, like most women, is overly ambitious.’ At that point, we knew that we were locked in.’

Comments from the women legal experts was followed by Q&As from the audience.