This year’s theme honours pioneering Black women who have been at the forefront of social justice movements, built communities and made outstanding contributions to academia, entertainment, and, of course, the legal world.
As important as this is, Black History Month is about much more than solely celebrating black history. It also provides us with an opportunity to make meaningful change.
Why is Black History Month important?
Black History Month can be an opportunity for employers and practitioners to pause, take stock of internal practices, and reflect on how much they are doing towards the attraction, retention and advancement of Black female talent and employees.
Why is this theme important?
Putting aside any other motivations for the moment, whether altruistic or financial (there is extensive evidence to show that ethnically and gender diverse businesses tend to be more profitable (there is extensive evidence to show that ethnically and gender diverse businesses tend to be more profitable), the Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA) Principle 6 states that all solicitors and law firms must ‘encourage equality diversity and inclusion’.
Black women in law: some statistics
Unfortunately, while recent statistics on diversity reveal a steady increase in female and ethnic minority lawyers across SRA regulated law firms from 2019 to 2022, it is clear that there is much more to be done to further representation and equality throughout the profession.
- there were just five Black British female silks in 2021 (Bar Council, ‘Race at the Bar’ report);
- a Black female publicly funded junior criminal barrister with the same level of experience as their white counterpart would bill on average £18,700 a year less;
- according to the SRA, women remain underrepresented at partner level in firms of all sizes and to a greater extent in the largest law firms. This is bearing in mind that only 1% of partners in large firms are Black in the first place; and
- there is evidence of large discrepancies in remuneration between black female solicitors and other groups. For example, the top 10% of Black women solicitors fell within the £50 to 100k income band, compared to the top 10% of White British male solicitors who fell within the £600 to 700k band.
There have been some encouraging green shoots. For example, a follow-up progress report by the Bar Council in November 2022 found that nine in 10 participating barrister chambers had adopted at least one of the 2021 report’s recommendations, including launching work experience programmes tailored towards Black female aspiring lawyers.
The face of the legal world is changing, but barriers still exist for Black women in law and it may take years for the face of the profession to truly reflect our diverse society.
Inspirational Black women in law
None of this is to downplay the achievements of Black women in the law. Below are just some examples of the countless trailblazing Black women in law who have had a hand in shaping the face of the profession as we know it:
- Stella Jane Thomas – the first Black woman to be called to the Bar (1933), the first female lawyer working in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and West Africa generally, and the first West African female magistrate;
- Baroness Scotland of Asthal – the first Black woman to be appointed to then-Queen’s Counsel in 1991, and the youngest person in then-over 200 years to take silk (aged 35);
- Dame Linda Dobbs – the first Black female lawyer to become a High Court Judge (2003);
- Debo Nwauzu – founder of the Black Lawyers’ Directory (2006), an organisation aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession;
- Stephanie Boyce – the first Black office holder, the sixth female, and the first person of colour to become the president of the Law Society of England and Wales (March 2021); and
- Jessikah Inaba – the UK’s first blind, Black female barrister (2022).
Ways to respectfully honour Black History Month
Each year’s Black History Month theme appears to be intended to build on the previous years, so that progressive changes are made. There is no set way to celebrate Black History Month. The ‘right’ approach will depend on the size of your organisation and where you are in your inclusion journey so will vary from workplace to workplace. To help move away from just performative celebrations and encourage meaningful and progressive change, here are some suggestions to consider.
Events – of course, you may want to run an event to mark the month, but it’s important to be mindful about how you resource this. For example, by:
- not simply placing responsibility for these events on the shoulders of Black employees. It is also important to appropriately recognise any work employees who opt to put into this in addition to their day job and provide sufficient time and adequate resources to prepare;
- ensuring you have a budget for external speakers.
- Sometimes there can be the unreasonable expectation that speakers on this topic will work for free, which in itself can exacerbate disparities;
- can you use it as an opportunity to promote and actively support Black-female owned businesses?
- Lastly, can you plan events at other times of the year to keep this on the agenda?
Look beyond October – so we all have more to celebrate going forward, employers may want to take the opportunity to think about longer term, practical initiatives for positive change. This might include:
- committing to looking at your internal processes and structures as part of any diversity equity and inclusion strategy. This can include looking at recruitment or promotion processes (sectors are increasingly using software tools to make recruitment more diverse), introducing sponsorship or mentoring programs. Or collaborating with diversity equity and inclusion advisors such as Extense, which specialises in advising businesses in this area;
- Working with third party organisations such as 10,000 Black Interns to help increase representation;
- or thinking about how you can support your Black lawyers going forward. For example by supporting any relevant employee resource groups and raising awareness of external networks such as the Black Solicitors Network or the Black Counsel Forum.
Black women have achieved remarkable feats for equality and representation in law. While we have, over time, come a long way, it is clear there is a long road ahead to dismantle barriers for Black women in the workplace. Employers and practitioners can use Black History Month not just as a time to celebrate but as a catalyst for real lasting change by taking meaningful steps to properly commit to and engage with Black History Month, not confining it to one month each year, and using each year’s Black History Month theme as a stepping stone to better practices.