International Women’s Day - The Legally Blonde Effect

27 February 2024

International Women’s Day - The Legally Blonde Effect

The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is ‘Inspire Inclusion’, but what does it mean to inspire inclusion in the context of gender equality? 

Put simply, to inspire inclusion is to inspire others to understand, value and seek out women’s inclusion. It is to promote and encourage improvement, whilst recognising the work that remains to be done.  


#InspiredInclusion – The progress made

The legal sector has traditionally been, and in many ways remains to be, dominated by men. However, in the last 20 years, the scales have tipped dramatically with women now comprising more than 57% of the profession. 

Improvements, and the increased female presence, can be attributed to a variety of factors including ongoing efforts of employers to promote more inclusive workplaces, increased exposure at a pre-university level and better representation in the media. 

One such example is Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, which demonstrated to girls and women everywhere that there was, and always should have been, a space for them in the legal profession. 

We saw Elle find her strength in her unapologetic femininity. She thrived in female-dominated spaces, turning to female colleagues as allies rather than competition. Reese Witherspoon told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that at least once a week she is told by a female professional that they chose law school because of Legally Blonde

Representation matters, and by seeing women on TV shows and films as successful lawyers, girls and women can see their place in the legal field.

These changes and their effect are apparent, with over 60% of LLB graduates in Scotland now female. In addition, we have seen clear improvements in the workplace. A report by the Law Society of Scotland found that 80% of solicitors and paralegals believe gender equality in the profession has improved.

This improvement is to the benefit of everyone. A study by McKinsey and Company found that companies with more than 30% women on their executive teams are significantly more likely to outperform those with less than 30%. 

As such, it is without a doubt that the legal profession in Scotland has vastly improved on issues of gender equality and should continue to do so. This International Women’s Day, Shepherd and Wedderburn are considering how young women have been inspired to enter the legal profession, the ongoing work required to achieve gender equality, and the efforts everyone can make to ensure all underrepresented groups can be encouraged to both enter and progress in the field of law. 


#AspiringInclusion – The progress to be made

To properly celebrate improvements and the progression to a more equal society, we must acknowledge the persistence of gender discrimination and inequality in 2024.

In 2022, an analysis of the gender pay gap in the UK legal sector found that 84% of women in law believed that they would not see true gender pay equality in their working life. The same study showed a median gender pay gap of 25.4%, demonstrating that while professional accessibility has improved, issues of pay equality remain. 

Moreover, the 'motherhood pay penalty', more particularly described as 'the discrimination around pregnancy and women coming back to work afterwards', continues to affect working mothers. It acts to further marginalise them, alongside their struggles with imposter syndrome and the anxiety that accompanies their work-life balance. 

The Scottish Parliament Committee heard that by the age of 42, full-time working mothers will earn 11% less than women without children and that there are more than five times the number of women aged 16-64 economically inactive due to caring responsibilities than men. 

This is a stark reality and is acknowledged by working mothers, with 75% of respondents to the Law Society of Scotland's 2018 Profile noting that lesser female presence in senior positions was attributable to the balance of having a family. 

With financial inequalities clear, the glass ceiling remains intact. This extends to the attitudes and stereotypes women face in the workplace, ironically, visible in the media that inspired many. 

In Legally Blonde, femininity is shown as both a source of power and conflict. The overarching theme of Elle’s storyline is rooted in the stereotype that femininity equates to stupidity. 

The film attempts to speak to the ability of this, and other stereotypes such as women being too ‘emotional’ to co-exist with success. With her pink feather pen, we see Elle disrupt the resistance to feminine presence in the legal profession. However, it must also be said that once Elle begins to conform to masculine ideas of success and ‘dress the part’, swapping out some pink for more neutral tones, she continues to face discrimination and prejudice. As such, the film also reminds us that to conform is not to be safe, and the line between femininity as the oppressor and as the liberator is a tightrope. 

The anxieties of balancing the internalised bias, that to embrace feminism is to be less capable, maintains for many female professionals. Unfortunately, even Elle Woods cannot eradicate the societal built-in perspectives of a professional woman. The discomfort persists and will continue to, despite the fact women have represented more than half of the profession since 2017. 

As such, the path to gender equality remains long. It is essential that continued struggles are highlighted, and your personal movement contribution is reviewed. Particularly, in relation to active allyship. 


#InspiringInclusion – The importance of allyship

While Elle Woods learned the critical value of believing in herself in her pursuit of success, she also gained an appreciation of the importance of allyship. 

Elle lacked mentorship, positive female role models and practical support, until her client and peers began to show faith and support in her specialist knowledge – albeit that knowledge relating to men’s shoe trends and perm upkeep (perhaps not so relatable to the average female legal professional today). 

Elle gained allies throughout her toils to become a practising lawyer, and it was those same allies that pushed her to become the female role model she was considered at the time, and still is to many women entering the profession today.

The importance of allyship for women in the legal profession is without comparison. We must support each other in our shared difficulties, push each other to reach our full potential, provide mentorship and sponsorship, and measure and celebrate each other’s success. We can use our experiences at all levels to show compassion, belief, collaboration, and inclusion.

While it is essential to acknowledge that women in the legal profession face real barriers to success, it is equally as important to recognise that women from ethnic minority backgrounds, from areas of deprivation, those with disabilities, and those who form part of the LGBTQ+ community face additional hurdles. 

Those who face inequality must stand together to address the power imbalances they face, as a collective unit. We must understand each other’s experiences before any action can be taken to rectify the inherent discrimination in the profession.

Yet, as much as the role of women is imperative for solidarity and the wider fight against inequality, we need allyship from our male colleagues too. The importance of men advocating for women’s voices to be heard, and not substituting their voices when they are being ignored is a model example of male allyship. Encouraging workplace policies as a united front, that allow women in the legal profession to progress without barriers, whether as a result of motherhood or otherwise, is also fundamental.

Allyship is not just about standing together to combat inequality on a larger scale, advocating for equal opportunities for progression, patching up the leaky pipeline, and closing the gender pay gap. We must inspire inclusion by listening to each other’s experiences, changing how we act towards and communicate with our female colleagues, showing increased support, and challenging our own unconscious biases. 

"What, like it's hard?"


Register for our International Women's Day 2024 virtual event on the 6th of March to hear our speakers talk to their real-life experiences being women in male-dominated fields and how they believe we can further inspire inclusion.


This piece was co-authored by Shona Lean, Sarah Cosslett, and Emma Brown who are Trainee Solicitors at Shepherd and Wedderburn and members of the Firm’s Gender Network.