In the 1700s, there were no advocates as we now know them in the Isle of Man; rather everyone presented their own cases to the Island’s chief judges or, as they are more accurately referred to, “Deemsters”. At that time, Deemsters were known to hold court in their own homes and on occasion in the local ale houses amid crowds of fishermen and farmers.

From these early times, it would take centuries before women began to undertake formal roles within the Manx legal profession.  The focus of this article is to explore the development of women’s roles within the Manx Bar and judiciary and to consider what the future may hold within the wider context of employment law developments more generally.

Until 1921, women were barred from becoming advocates in the Isle of Man. The passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1921 (the “Act”) removed this impediment.  Clare Faulds made history by becoming the first woman to be called to the Manx Bar in 1973.  Her milestone marked women’s formal entry into the legal profession in the Isle of Man and 2023 celebrates the 50th anniversary since Clare’s admission.

The Act is only 4 pages long but marked a significant step forward for women’s careers in the law. However, in order to be admitted as an advocate to the Manx Bar, a woman would first need to serve articles for three years and hold a university degree or, in the absence degree, have fulfilled the equivalent requirements of a degree. It is important to note that, when the Act was passed into law, not all universities permitted women to attend, and whilst it was a step in the right direction, there remained, in addition, a social barrier to enter the profession as university was not accessible to women of all socio-economic backgrounds. A challenge which remains prevalent in modern day society, not just for women.

The Act was later repealed with the introduction of the Equality Act 2017 which has consolidated a number of the employment rights developed over the years, addressing gender inequality as well as inequality on other grounds.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the Island witnessed the appointment of Dr Sharon Roberts as the first female Deemster and President of the Isle of Man Law Society. In relatively quick succession, the Island then saw the appointment of Jane Hughes as Deputy High Bailiff in 2011.

The Manx Bar continues to evolve, and women now make up approximately 52% of the profession overall. However, a relatively small proportion are currently in senior roles, which likely reflects the competing pressures in an industry that has traditionally made few allowances for being a parent as well as a lawyer. Trainee and newly qualified advocates are now fairly evenly represented as between men and women, but the challenge is in maintaining equal proportions throughout the career path.  Developments in employment law and more flexible modern working practices will go some way towards this, as will the progression of more women into senior positions (in law and the legislature) and their greater visibility as a result.

As Sheryl Sanberg (Former COO of Facebook and author of ‘Lean In’) said “We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.”

 “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”

             (Michelle Obama).

In practical terms, some of the significant barriers to progression that women in law and other industries face may include bias, unequal pay, a lack of support, and the challenges of balancing caring responsibilities with career commitments (which still predominantly fall on their shoulders).

The need to level (up) the playing field was most recently evidenced with the overwhelming number of responses received to the Department for Enterprise’s (“DfE’s”) consultation on (amongst other things) shared parental leave in the Isle of Man. This represents a step forward and potential alignment with the UK where parents can split, in effect, the maximum maternity leave a mother can currently take between them. The DfE also consulted on additional time off for parental bereavement leave and to care for dependants, enhancing and extending existing rights.

There are not currently any plans to introduce statutory pay for maternity leave or shared parental pay, but the door will be left open by retaining the ability to introduce such benefit through secondary legislation.

In the meantime, a number of the more family-friendly employers have extended contractual benefits and schemes to Isle of Man employees enabling them to benefit from greater career “flex” and possibilities for progression – ironically, the law (and the legislation) may be catching up with the business sector and wider society in terms of the need to provide genuine options and flexibility to achieve real equality of opportunity.

Whilst some women decry the annual celebration of International Women’s Day on the basis that marketing culture has made it “artificial” or that women should strive to be recognised on merit alone, the fact that there is an annual day when the conversation revisits the subject of gender inequality at work is helpful is assessing where we’re at and what genuine change has been achieved as well as what tangible, concrete, further commitments need to be secured from employers and policy makers.

It should not be forgotten that International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. At the same time, it is also a call to action for accelerating women’s equality and this is really about realising full potential, of both/all genders, and at all levels.

The legal profession has made giant strides since I entered the industry in 2014, becoming more open to change and to recognise that flexible working benefits all employees, irrespective of gender. Whilst there are still many challenges to overcome to truly achieve equity (not equality!), as a woman and an advocate I think the picture is as positive as it ever has been and I look forward to seeing how employment law developments, employer engagement and collaboration will propel things forward. As the saying goes “it takes a village” and everyone has a part to play – watch this space!

For further information or if you require any employment related advice, please reach out to Katherine Sheerin or Kirsten Porter.