Women in law in Europe – What’s the situation in my country?
January 16, 2019 10:54 am Published by

Women in law in Europe – What’s the situation in my country?

There are many opinions and arguments in the discussion about women’s advancement, often based purely on personal experience. They can be very individual and subjective, and may distort the view of the bigger picture. Maybe a closer look at the facts can help to clear up some beliefs that do not reflect reality. Luckily, there is a recent report for the EU parlament’s judicial committee that provides many insightful numbers, facts and analyses.


The chiefs of the European court rooms are – perhaps surprisingly so – overall rather evenly distributed among men and women. There is even a slight majority of female judges. Interestingly, Common Law countries tend to have more men on the judge’s benches, while more women hold a gavel in Civil Law member states. In some countries, the gender gap even favors women 70/30. Still, the fact that cases in the EU are overall more likely to be decided on by a female judge should not be overinterpreted as sign of women’s advancement. In many countries, judges earn significantly less than other legal professionals such as attorneys or prosecutors. Also, women may be more common at courts of lower instance, but men still fill the most seats on intermediate and supreme courts. The general tendency is that the higher the court, the fewer women are to be found. In the Supreme courts of the EU states, only one third of all judges are women. On the bright side, the numbers of female higher instance judges has significantly increased in recent years.

Public Prosecutors

It probably also comes as a surprise that almost 60% of all public prosecutors in the EU are women, and their numbers are likely to go up even further. While this tendency is more consistent than the gender distribution of judges, there are some significant variations between the member states. While about 80% of prosecutors in Cyprus are women, in Italy and Germany, this profession is still is firmly in male hands. The trend that the higher in the court structure you go, the fewer women there are, is not only true of judges, but also of prosecutors. At supreme court level, 60% of prosecutors are male, with Belgium having only men who serve in this position, and Italy an also staggering 92%.


While female lawyers are already rather well-represented in public offices, the situation in the private sector looks much more dire. Only 43% of all bar members in the EU are women, with extreme variations from country to country. The gender gap in Eastern, Western and Southern Europe is comparatively narrow, with a roughly 50/50 distribution in Poland, France, Italy and the UK. Northern and Central Europe, on the other hand, lag behind in promoting women attorneys. In the Nordic countries, about one third of the bar is female. The situation is similar in Germany, the EU’s most populous country. Austria finishes last with an ca 80% male bar, down from a shameful more than 90% (!) in 2005. In the light of this it is very fitting that the Women in Law Conference is held in the capital of the one EU country where awareness and action is most urgently needed. Similar to their female judges and prosecutors, women attorneys are well-represented in the lower ranks, but they are less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues, especially in larger law firms. In fact, the more partners there are, the fewer of them are women. While in smaller firms with up to 4 partners, about 40% of them are female, that number decreases to roughly 20% as the size of the firm reaches more than 10 partners.

A call for action

The numbers of women working in law might be gradually increasing across the board, but it will take a long time to achieve equality in the numbers if progress continues at such an idle pace. Because of this it is paramount to spread awareness of the dire state of gender equality in legal professions, which is what the Women in Law Conference is set out to achieve. Women across the globe should get together and investigate the causes of their underrepresentation in law, especially in the higher ranks. They should find strong and effective ways to accelerate progress, so that an equality in the numbers is not achieved in the day of their granddaughters, but in their own lifetime.

For the full report click here (PDF).