Legal feminists take on the judiciary
23 October 2011 | By Vanessa Wozniak
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Why is there not more gender diversity at the top of the legal profession? What can be done to nurture and encourage female talent and, more importantly, accommodate women’s needs and perspectives at the highest echelons of the sector? Can you be both a feminist and a judge?
These were some of the questions raised at an event organised by the InterLaw Diversity Forum for LGTB networks on 13 October at Norton Rose HQ, to coincide with the firm’s recent launch of its women’s network.
The event featured a panel of high-profile female lawyers and legal scholars who threaded together various strands of polemic, uniting in the view that systemic barriers must be broken down to afford women an equal chance of rising up the ladder to leadership roles.
Theming the evening’s discussion were the binary interpretations in Feminist Judgments: From Theory to Practice by feminist legal scholars Rosemary Hunter, Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley. The book presents decisions of the English courts from a feminist perspective.
The cases chosen feature significant decisions across a broad range of areas and are primarily opinions of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords. The authors write the ’missing’ judgments they feel a feminist judge would have written in more than 20 leading cases in English and Welsh law.
By writing these judgments Feminist Judgments tests feminist knowledge in practice, in decisions in individual cases. In some instances these are written in fictitious appeals, while in others they are written as an additional concurring or dissenting judgment in the original case.
The evening’s debate explored the notion that there cannot be a neutral perspective in legal decision-making and considered the impact that gender may have on the law.
Among the panellists was Supreme Court Justice Baroness Hale, the only female member of the Supreme Court. Hale SCJ, who also wrote a foreword in Feminist Judgments, highlighted notable cases that she had presided over that had brought about a clash of legal values between her co-judges.
One such case was that of ex-ballerina Elaine McDonald’s loss of the right to an overnight carer after being left with reduced mobility following a stroke. Hale SCJ argued that women have a different view on what human dignity entails than men.
She also stressed the need for a diversification of legal minds at the apex of law, admitting that she often “sticks out like a sore thumb” and that she is “not feminist enough”.
“It’s just the eccentricities of men that are rubbing up against one another and we need the eccentricities of rather more women as well. We should have a true diversity of minds at the highest level,” she said. “There are still too many systemic barriers to recognising the merit that so many women have. A trickle up to the top is just not going to work.”
Feminist Judgments co-author Hunter admits that it is hard for women to reach the top in law, especially in the judiciary.
“To be considered for a judicial post one has to have reached the top of the legal profession and women are far more likely to leave the profession than men due to a variety of factors,” she says. “Many senior women lawyers find judicial appointments unattractive due to the male-dominated environment of the senior judiciary and the shortage of female role models and supporters.”
“The City has failed to promote or pay women fairly,” argues InterLaw Diversity Forum founder and Norton Rose support lawyer Laura Hodgson. “There are many opportunities for women to succeed and there are a number of inspirational women in the legal profession.
“The profession must now do more to ensure that the number of women entering it have an equal chance of rising up the ladder to leadership roles. The issues for women in professional roles, whether gay or straight, are predominantly the same: pay equality and an equal chance of promotion.”