Awarding time for women

As the ABA prepares to honour its female lawyers, Alison Laferla looks into the vexed question of women-only awards

One of the best attended events at this year's American Bar Association conference is likely to be the Margaret Brent women lawyers of achievement awards. The awards, which are named after the first woman lawyer in the US, “celebrate the accomplishments of women lawyers and honour them for their contributions both as lawyers but, more importantly, for what they have done to open doors to other women in the profession,” says an ABA spokeswoman.

This year's five winners are: Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican-American legal defence and educational fund; Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, US Court of Appeal judge and founder of the National Association of Women Judges; Evelyn Gandy, former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi; Jamie Gorelick, former deputy Attorney General of the US and vice-chairwoman of Fannie Mae; and Drucilla Stender Ramey, executive director and general counsel of the San Francisco Bar Association.

There is also a special award for outstanding achievement or a lifelong commitment to women's legal issues, which has, in the past, been won by Janet Reno, the first female US Attorney General, and this year was awarded to Roberta Cooper Ramo, immediate past president of the ABA.

A similar event was held in the UK for the first time this year, when The Times hosted an award ceremony at its Women Lawyer conference in April. Janet Gaymer, partner at Simmons & Simmons, won the woman of achievement award. And Helena Kennedy QC and Dame Mary Arden QC, chair of the Law Commission, were presented with lifetime achievement awards.

The US, with its two women supreme court judges, is generally regarded as more advanced than the UK in terms of equality in the profession. But the ABA says that, although more women are being named managing or senior partners, there is some way to go before discrimination is eliminated.

In 1987 the ABA created the Commission on Women in the Profession, a 12-member commission of lawyers and judges, which includes three men, to “secure the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the legal profession and the justice system”. It is the commission that presents the Margaret Brent awards, as a high-profile means of addressing the issue of discrimination.

But the flip-side of the argument for an award ceremony exclusive to women, is that it can be regarded as discriminatory. What is more, singling women out in this way can be seen as patronising, because it implies that women are not able to compete in the achievement stakes on an equal footing with male counterparts.

Margaret Anstey, a partner at Tozers, is chair of the Law Society membership committee, and has consistently opposed the idea of a women's seat on the society's council because she believes women should get elected to council on merit, and not because they are women.

Anstey says: “I have no objection to women being given awards, but I am against positive discrimination.”

And there is proof that women lawyers can successfully compete for honours with their male colleagues. Cherie Booth QC was voted legal personality of the year last April by readers of The Lawyer, beating many, including the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, to the honour.

Sally Weatherall, legal director and company secretary at UUNET, also came out top in the in-house company/commercial lawyer category, despite stiff competition.

Weatherall says: “I was thrilled to receive the award because I work in a very competitive industry, both within the legal profession and also in the telecoms business.”

She adds that the award means more because it was open to both sexes: “Women compete every day against men, both in industry and in the profession. I do not think they want to be pulled out and told they are a special category.

“If you win an award open to women lawyers only, it means you are in the top few per cent of about 30 per cent of the profession. It is nice but not much to get excited about.”

Nevertheless, Alison Parkinson, immediate past president of the Association of Women Solicitors, believes that awards open solely to women lawyers are a good thing.

“The problem that women have is that they are not making it to the top jobs. Giving awards that recognise the contributions of individual women is a way of attracting attention to the fact that there are many able women around.”