Thought leadership from our experts

Women in Law: It’s time to step up to the plate

Nowadays the number of female professionals has significantly increased in contrast with the past, particularly in the field of law. However, it should be remembered that this is an achievement that was only realised commencing from the beginning of the twentieth century and, in fact, it was only in the 90s' that the presence of female lawyers almost equalised the number of male colleagues.

According to recent research carried out by the Milan Bar Association, female lawyers make up 48% of the total number of attorneys enrolled to the Milan Bar and 46% of them fall within the age range of 34-54. On the contrary, 81% of lawyers with rights of audience in the Italian Supreme Court are men, while only 18.2% are women. Such numbers correspond with the data held by every local Italian Bar Association. While, at national level, female lawyers represent 50% of all Italian lawyers and this number continues to grow.

The above-mentioned statistics signify a real revolution if we only think that in 1982 (which is not so long ago), female lawyers represented only 6% of the total number of lawyers in Italy. Moreover, recent statistics reveal that the majority of students majoring in law at university are female (60% of young law graduates are women). This suggests that the presence of women in the legal profession is likely to increase even more.

But, there's more: statistical data concerning university education not only reveals the number of female students to be higher than that of male students, but also shows that women graduate with higher marks than men. Nonetheless, despite this data, it is still very difficult for women to succeed in reaching the highest levels of their profession. Therefore, the problem of gender discrimination is no longer quantitative but qualitative: in other words, at the moment, equality in numbers between female and male lawyers does not equal equality in the profession.

If the above-mentioned statistics prove that women achieve better results in studying and training, why is it then that they do not experience equal successes in their profession? Without any doubt, this is all due to problems linked to balancing work and family responsibilities. We must not forget that, despite the fact that we are living in the era of equal opportunity, our cultural model is still tied to a structure in which the weight of family responsibility rests primarily on women, as either a mother or a wife.

As a consequence, female lawyers (but also women in general) very often have to face unequal treatment in the workplace. For example, according to a recent survey carried out by the Italian Lawyers' Social Security Body, it appears that the income of female lawyers is even less than 50% of that of males in each Italian region.

It should also be considered that the fact that women have always been underrepresented in the professional bar associations, negatively affects the position of female lawyers as they are not involved when decisions are taken or when measures that may affect their professional future are adopted.

All of the above issues led to the adoption of an anti-discrimination policy both at European and National level, which has resulted in the implementation of several national initiatives aimed at putting the principle of equality into practice, including in relation to the field of law, with particular reference to equality opportunities between men and women in their legal practice. In fact, on 8th February 2006 a Memo of Understanding was agreed between the Ministry for Equal Opportunities and the Italian Bar Association, with which both parties undertook to develop a strong working relationship aimed at defining a common project of study, research and training in the field of equal opportunities, with the aim of removing all forms of discrimination and achieving equal opportunities in the profession.

Following this Memo of Understanding, Committees for Equal Opportunities (so-called "Comitato Pari Opportunità" or "CPO") were then established at local Bar Associations and many protocols were adopted in order to establish some rules aimed at granting protection to female lawyers.

In particular, the Milan Bar Association established the Committee for Equal Opportunities in November 2006, with the aim of:

  • promoting equal opportunities in terms of access, training and professional qualification;
  • preventing, discouraging and eliminating discriminatory conduct in relation to gender and any other reason, as well as all obstacles limiting legal, factual and substantive equality in practising law.

The problem relating to the under representation of women within the aforementioned decision-making bodies has also been resolved through the Committees for Equal Opportunities. These committees should indeed equally represent woman and men.

In this respect, an important step forward – especially with regard to the employment law field in which I myself work – has been taken within the Italian Employment Lawyers Association (AGI - Avvocati Giuslavoristi Italiani). In fact, its statute expressly provides that the election of the group of candidates elected to positions in the statutory bodies will be based on a criterion that ensures equality between genders. The least represented gender must obtain at least a third of the membership of the National Executive Board and of the Executive Boards of the regional chapters, in accordance with the manner set out by the national and regional electoral regulations.

The Local Committees for Equal Opportunities have also adopted some protocols setting down specific rules which grant protection to female lawyers, especially during pregnancy and the initial months that follow childbirth. For example, in Milan, a Protocol was signed on 1st June 2011, in which it is expressly provided that the Judge, when fixing the date for court hearings, must take into account the state of pregnancy of any female lawyers, as well as the period corresponding to maternity leave as provided for by Legislative Decree no. 151 of 26th March 2001.

In this respect, on 15th July 2016, the OUA (the Unitary Body of Attorneys, so-called "Organismo Unitario dell'Avvocatura") discussed and decided to demand that the Government take all initiative to amend certain laws (art. 420-ter of the Italian Code of Criminal Procedure, art. 84-bis of the Italian Code of Civil Procedure and art. 115 disp. att. of the Code of Criminal Procedure) in the cases in which (at least with reference to the public defender service) a lawyer is unable to attend a hearing during the 2 months preceding and the 3 months following childbirth, or when the other conditions provided for by the law on the protection and support of motherhood and fatherhood are fulfilled, or even in the case of the sudden illness of any child under the age of three.

In fact, the OUA believes that in order to ensure and protect motherhood and parenthood in the organisation and the performance of judicial activities, it is essential to adopt a regulatory text in which protection is provided for the period immediately before and after childbirth (at the very least).

The OUA therefore underlines a fundamental principle: "The protection of the right to maternity leave is an expression of the protection of the child's rights and the right to his or her physiological, relational and emotional needs, which are linked to the development of his or her personality". The Government must therefore intervene to ensure effective "parenthood" protection, which, in view of real equality between men and women in exercising the legal profession, also corresponds to the adoption of concrete policies reconciling professional and family life.

Finally, within this general context characterised by numerous efforts to grant further protection to women in the labour market, it should not be forgotten that there is a bill that is currently under discussion which introduces specific protection for self-employed female workers, in line with the new policy reconciling professional and family life.

So, a lot of progress has been made over the years, but now it's time for women to step up to the plate!