Women lawyers face ‘real obstacles’ in bid for equality

Senator Ivana Bacik remarks made as she accepts woman lawyer of year award

Women lawyers continue to face “real obstacles” and to be “greatly outnumbered” by men at senior ranks in the legal profession, a leading law academic has said.

"Progress for women has not been inevitable; nor has it even been," Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, told members of the Irish Women Lawyers Association at the weekend.

“Change has always been hard-fought and hard won, especially cultural change.”

She made the remarks on Saturday night when accepting the IWLA woman lawyer of the year award at a gala dinner in Dublin, attended by women judges, barristers and solicitors.


Senator Bacik noted a major Trinity College study of women in law in 2003 had found four major obstacles to women advancing in the legal profession – cash, confidence, childcare and culture.

At that time, one in five judges were women, women were 41 per cent of solicitors and one third of barristers and some believed it would only be “a matter of time” before women came at least to equal men in the profession.

‘Momentous time’

There has been some progress in terms of numbers since that 2003 report in that women now outnumber men as practising solicitors, 39 per cent of barristers are women and one third are judges, she said.

However, women still face “significant instances of discrimination” and “real obstacles” in progressing to senior positions in the law, as senior counsel, as partners in solicitors firms and as judges.

Recent reports of "highly sexist" language used by young male trainees in a Law Society students what's app group underline "the need to remain vigilant about challenging a culture in which women are not treated as equal colleagues".

A Bar Council survey also found sexual harassment is almost exclusively experienced by female, and generally younger barristers, she noted.

It also found most barristers tend not to report incidents of discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment because it is perceived as “commonplace” and they fear repercussions if they report it.

Earlier in her address, Senator Bacik said she was particularly pleased to accept the award in 2019, marking 100 years since the passage in Westminster of a 1919 Act, applicable to Ireland, which removed a legal ban on women entering the professions and the senior civil service.

This is a "momentous time" for women's rights, she said. This centenary, the repeal of the Eighth amendment and developments including the sight of Brenda Hale reading out the UK Supreme Court ruling that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully in proroguing the Westminster Parliament, "should give us all a real and justified frisson of pride in our gender".

A lot may have been done but there is “a lot more to do”, she concluded. “Now it’s time to continue campaigning: to challenge complacency.”

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times