Blog on a gathering on the subject addressed by Lady Hale of the UK Supreme Court and other leading figures, academic and practising

The Global Justice Academy and the Scottish Public Law Group co-hosted a thought-provoking and entertaining evening on “Discrimination against women in the law: problems and solutions”, on Friday 22 March 2013 at the Royal College of Physicians.

Over 200 women and 60 men braved the icy March blasts, to attend this evening event chaired by Anna Poole QC. We were gathered to hear a keynote speech delivered by Baroness Hale of Richmond, the only female member of the UK Supreme Court judiciary and the most senior female judge in the history of the UK.

Lady Hale spoke openly and frankly about discrimination in the judiciary, and provided a comparative insight into the position of women in the judiciary as well as life as the only female on the Supreme Court bench alongside 11 male brethren. She called for the route to the highest judicial positions across the UK to be more open, and for a change to judicial selection procedures which restrict the pool from which the judicial elite are selected.

Lady Hale believes this would afford the opportunity to develop a more equal level of diversity and gender representation across the judiciary in the UK. She observed that most other countries had solved the problem, but it was taken for granted in the UK that the only people qualified to become judges in the higher courts were very successful barristers or advocates.

Her speech was followed by a very engaging, candid and thought-provoking speech delivered by Neil Stevenson, the Director of Professional Support and Representation at the Law Society of Scotland (LSS), and a graduate of Edinburgh School of Law – who stated at the outset that his current area of work had been inspired by the “Gender Justice” course he had studied as a law undergraduate. Neil presented us with some striking statistics and anecdotal evidence of gender issues facing the solicitor branch of the legal profession in Scotland, based on work carried out by and on behalf of the LSS.

The evidence ranged from an identified pay gap of an average of £10,000 per annum in certain ranks of the profession (a pay gap that senior male members of the profession does not believe exists!), the lack of female representation at partner level in firms and a gender division in legal areas where females have been successful in achieving partner level, to females’ inhumanity to fellow females working their way up the career ladder, and the reality of the impact of flexible working which is poorly managed from a firm service provision perspective.

Neil posed some very challenging questions and asked us to consider: should the issue of gender be reframed to an issue of childcare responsibility, suggesting a same-sex couple with children as the control group for this. Should we not be discussing the pay gap between genders at the Law Society AGM? What are we going to do about diversity in the profession, now that the intake to the profession has swung to nearly 70% female? With a further full census by the LSS of its members to follow later in 2013, you get the sense that the blue touch paper has been lit and the debate on these issues is very much alive.

Laura Dunlop QC spoke candidly and warmly about the position of the Scots bar, and took us on a very interesting historical journey reflecting on female input at the bar. From the female pioneer at the Scots bar, Dame Margaret Kidd in 1923, who became the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to take silk in 1948, to a discussion of Dame Rose Heilbron, the first female to take silk in England. From the challenges of the obsession by their male counterparts with how women would wear their hair, what they would wear (most definitely not red nail polish!), to where they would change into their court gowns and sit for lunch.

The Scots bar was for many years an exclusively male institution and continues to pose challenges to many women progressing through its ranks. (The fact that this event was being held at all was dubbed anecdotally by many male members of Faculty as a form of feminist rally – which is testimony to their sentiments (and enlightenment)!) Laura discussed how solicitors select counsel and the conventional approach by many solicitors who expect a man to act in certain types of case. She also appealed to females to act as role models, to provide support and encouragement to each other, but also to acknowledge the support they receive from all members across their fields as they progress through the ranks. Laura believes that a career at the Scots bar is flexible, family friendly and challenging, and clearly enjoys her work there.

Closing the contributions for the evening was Professor Rosa Greaves, Head of the School of Law at Glasgow University. Professor Greaves addressed the academic perspective, drawing comparisons from across the UK, and also from Scandinavia where she had worked previously, based on research she had carried out. The dearth of females in the senior professorial ranks in some universities was sobering. The influence and effect of this on the aspirations of the students, and staff they are in contact with, is concerning.

Professor Greaves suggested some possible solutions, including female academics allowing male “peacock” academics to review and edit their CVs when applying for more senior positions (confessing that she has done this during her career progression), and appointments to office bearer roles in universities alternating by gender, so that roles do not become gender-labelled by expectation and convention. She advised us that she has many more. Professor Greaves provided thought-provoking anecdotal evidence of a need for a more confident and assertive female body of academics, leaving many of us with much to consider.

A healthy and energetic discussion and debate ensued over drinks post these speeches, and many of us left pondering this issue and what each of us can do to face and surmount these challenges.

The Author
Caroline Colliston, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Professional Legal Studies, School of Law, University of Edinburgh. This article was first posted to the Global Justice Academy Blog:
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