by James Hand, Portsmouth Law School, University of Portsmouth



Ahead of last year’s 100th Anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and this year’s 100th anniversary of Ivy Williams becoming the first woman legal academic and the 50th anniversary of Claire Palley becoming the first women to be appointed to a professorship in the UK, Charlotte Harrison and I wrote an article presenting some snapshots on diversity in the legal academy which was published in the European Journal of Current Legal Issues toward the end of last year.  In it, among other things, we noted that the number of solicitors on roll and with practising certificates had reached parity between the sexes in the middle of the last decade and, building on the SLSA blog post Women Leaders in Law, that the male:female gender balance of heads of law schools has moved from 5:1 to near parity in the last 20 years.  While we covered a diverse range of other snapshots, we did not look at doctorates.


Not only is Ivy Williams described as the first woman legal academic, as Rosemary Auchmuty noted she was “the first [British] woman to be awarded a doctorate in law for her academic work” in 1923 (although women had been awarded doctorates in, for example, Ireland, Germany and Switzerland before then in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see e.g. Gisela Shaw (2003) Conflicting agendas: The first female jurists in Germany, International Journal of the Legal Profession, 10:2, 177-191)).


A lot has changed in the last 20 years, let alone the last 100, within legal and wider academia.  HESA data (available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence) show that the number of doctoral awards following full-time study has increased by nearly 100% since 2000 (whereas part-time study has seen only a 10% increase).  Law PhDs, which make up only 2.2% of the total number as of 2018/19, have seen a 190% increase since 2000/01.  Data is not freely available at subject level regarding the gender breakdown of the awards at the start of this century but women accounted for 39% of all full-time PhD awards in 2001/2002 rising to 47% in 2018/2019.  The figure for Law PhDs in 2018/19 was a very similar 47.3%.  HESA’s rounding strategy obscures the picture, particularly for part-time doctorates as the the numbers are low, but it would seem that in the last five 5 years awards to women have driven two-thirds of the increase in full-time PhD awards.


Many holders of doctorates remain in academia.  Data is currently only freely available regarding staff with PhDs from 2009/10 to 2018/19 and is not broken down by gender.  The total number of non-atypical academics in academia as a whole has increased by around 20% in that period and there is a gender-level detail there.  The 25% increase in non-atypical women academics in that period is greater than the 19.5% total increase but not enough to increase the proportion of women academics by much more than 2% (from 44% to 46.2%).  The proportion of staff with PhDs in that timeframe has increased from 58% of full-time staff to 66% (and from 20.6% to 29.7% of part-time staff).  As Alysia Blackham points out in her recent The Law Teacher article, arising from her LERN funded study on precarious academic work in legal education, much care is needed when looking at HESA statistics on staff due to “definitional misunderstandings” as to the nature of atypical workers by HEIs.  This post – and the snapshots in the Eurpoean Journal of Current Legal Issues piece – exclude atypical workers as under the HESA definition the use of such contracts should be for very short-term (one-offs or under four weeks) or to work as required (student ambassadors being an example) rather than teaching or research posts but it seems that is not how it is always recorded.  However, with that caveat in place, and as noted in the snapshots article, broad gender balance in law schools was reached in the middle of the last decade (both in terms of the all atypical staff and when looking at open-ended/permanent contracts), as well as in headships of Law Schools across the sector, and it must now only be a short while until the same can be said for doctorates in law schools.