Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Breaking Up Breaking Through

Breaking Up: Breaking Through
Commonwealth Women in Science and the Professions
Panel Contribution by Vera Baird QC, former Solicitor General of England and Wales and Co-Director of Astraea:Gender Justice (Research and Training)
In the UK, Women are making inroads at lower levels in justice agencies but the higher positions remain male dominated. These echelons are where the rules of the game – the norms are set which deal with women as victims or as defendants.
Here is a checklist of 3 reasons why Justice needs more women.
•    Women make up half the population and as such should be fairly represented within the high level decision making roles in the justice sector
•     Justice needs to be responsive and accessible to all citizens irrespective of gender. Suspects, defendants, offenders, victims and witnesses jurors all interacting with the cjs are of diverse backgrounds across gender class race religion disability and sexual orientation. It is therefore important that senior staff, within the system are equally diverse so that the system is perceived as relevant and responsive.
•    The increased visibility of women in senior roles as role models in this very public arena can help reshape gender role expectations.

I was once in Manchester Crown Court when all the judges assembled in one court to pay tribute to someone who was retiring. Their ushers brought them in and took them out and I must have looked worried at the gender balance because one usher said to me “Don’t worry you might live to see the day when all the judges are women and all the ushers are men”. However I would settle for a mixture in both groups.

•    Women’s experience of justice and of everyday life frequently differs from those of men. The participation of women within justice agencies is therefore crucial to ensure that those difference perspectives and approaches can be applied to important issues.

Let me exemplify by reference to a Court of Appeal case
It was I believe the CA level of the case of R v A about previous sexual history in rape cases with the defendant. In that case there was allegedly a history of sexual behaviour and the trial court had left it out. It seems to me that it should have been put in on an agreed basis if the facts were agreed, rather than try the case in a vacuum about their previous history. However the issue in the court of appeal became its relevance to consent and the male judge delivering the judgment said that it was obvious to him and his (male) colleagues that the fact that complainant had had sex with a defendant before made it far likelier that she would have agreed to the sex alleged in the case. Any woman on that Court would have said that having had sex with a man once might make it infinitely less likely that a complainant would agree to it again. It might have been a poor experience. She may have fallen in love with someone else since. She may have feared that she would fall for him if she did it again and decide not to do. There are many possibilities but it is not obvious that it makes her consent more likely.

If we look at women workers in the criminal justice agencies, in the police, 27% of PCs are women but only 12 % of chief inspector grades and above are women.

Parenthood issues are the main problem for women
There is a need for a clear and well understood flexibility policy.

Spending weeks away on a strategic command course is impossible for a primary carer and better ways of training for promotion need to be found.

Some specialist squads have outdated requirements  – like  a level of upper body strength – perhaps the shot putting squad.
This is a throw-back from days when all Met police had to be 5” 11” tall, presumably because that was generally as big as men were and so they should be able to hand any fight. It  discriminated against most average-sized men, not just women.
According to Fawcett’s last report police shirts are ordered by collar size and stab vest have no shaping for women – very uncomfortable
Women have a contribution to make to all aspects of policing. For instance they are excellent in public order situations. Out in town on a late night there is often somebody who wants to fight the world and would see a male PC as a challenge, they calm down if it is a woman.
In the Legal Profession, a Law Society survey in 2008 found that male solicitors earned on average £19000 a year more than females, representing the problems women have in progressing to senior levels. Although there are 62% approx of women students and of trainees there are only 19.6% of women partners in the top 100 firms.
The long hours culture, inflexible hours and lack of family friendly policies seem to be to blame. Maternity leave or career breaks impact on opportunities for promotion.
In the Government Legal Service where there is greater emphasis on flexibility there is a far higher proportion of women solicitors in senior positions.
In the top 30 sets at the Bar there are 42 female silks and 479 male silks and women silk applicants have fallen to their lowest for ten years, though more are successful.
It is the same story. Women now join the Bar in roughly equal numbers to men but at 15 years call only 19.5% of practitioners are women. On average a male barrister earns almost £100000 more than a woman.
Since judges are drawn predominantly from the last two categories it is not surprising that of the 3820 judges under 20% are women. In the senior judiciary the figure is about 11% and has increased though EHRC estimates that at the current rate of progress parity will take 55 more years.
The Lord Chief Justice in London says that he and the Judicial Appointments Commission wants is the widest possible choice of candidates from which to make selections based purely on merit.” Let us see what the profession has to overcome if he is to achieve that laudable aim.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) commissioned a qualitative study of females in the profession (it did so in a project which also dealt with the experience of BME lawyers, but I deal with only the aspects on women)
They interviewed 64 women

Though there were regional, organization and sectoral variations in experience there were clear commonalities. In fact they found that the profession is inherently masculine in character. These are some random points: –

•    The preference of employers for the graduates of “old‟ universities means that sections of society are filtered out of the profession.  In addition, a number of females gave accounts of job interviews in which the interviewer, instead of focusing on their technical ability, had asked inappropriate questions based on assumptions
•     Women faced difficulties flowing from working patterns based on male models of working. Flexible working patterns are either not permitted, or damage future promotion prospects.
•    Similarly, while there was widespread agreement that women were now more likely to be able to work part-time, and also progress to partnership, the resilience of a culture of “presenteeism‟
•    A persistent theme was that it was hard to be recognized  at all, as either a candidate for promotion, or even, on occasions, an authentic member of the profession. Those with power to allocate rewards and status did not need deliberately to discriminate, since the possibility that, for example, women with children or Asian women could achieve significant status on the basis of merit frequently did not appear to occur to them.

A major obstacle is the profession’s informal culture and in particular the key significance of personal relationships. This is exemplified by the informal mentoring which was reported as characterizing  most respondents’ workplaces. Powerful senior figures (generally white men) tended to foster the careers of young white men.

•    The importance of networking outside the firm also – predominantly male activities which were also numerically dominated by white men.

They recommended (amongst other proposals)

Disclosing and Monitoring Diversity Data
To place an obligation on frontline regulators to publish aggregated diversity data for each branch of the legal profession. Crown Prosecution Service do that now.
Formal Mentoring, Role Models and Networks
Firms and chambers should adopt formal mentoring schemes in order to counter the informal mechanisms which privilege traditional members with partners and those of influence, at the expense of others.
Flexible Working/Structural Reforms
Improved willingness to experiment with flexible working patterns, to support work-life balance for everyone but so that women with the primary caring role can nonetheless be seen as full members of firms and chambers. Firms appear to have been willing to adopt flexible working strategies when work was scarce during the recession as a way of avoiding redundancies; maintaining these arrangements once the recession is over would be beneficial, including career breaks, sabbaticals, longer periods of unpaid leave over summer months and four day weeks.
Formal Diversity Training as part of all levels of training, but in particular from pre-qualification

It is clear that the figures of women and men entering the profession are comparable and this is clear progress and good evidence of the optimism and high expectations which young women now have.

The problem is in SUSTAINING women in the professions. It is the male culture, obvious to all but specifically highlighted by the LSB that crushes them.

As women they are seen as an oddity, from the outset. An anecdote from my experience is that until very recently the Court of Appeal Criminal Division would send a letter to each barrister when s/he had drafted Grounds of Appeal about what they should do next. It was phrased that “Counsel should ensure that his client….. He should ….. The terminology was always “he” Some people will say that it doesn’t matter but it does. It makes women feel that they are outsiders, with a struggle to enter into from the start to show that they are appropriate people to be in that forum.

Women’s experience worsens with parenthood, if they are to take a primary caring role. There is utter inflexibility about managing this. It is seen as the woman’s problem and though more liberal firms and chambers will make allowances, it is always at the expense of such women being seen as part-time, disengaged, out of the ambitious career profile. In fact society needs children and it needs the work of women for the reasons I set out at the start and so it ought not to be that the individual is seen to be failing to match out-of-date work patterns but that the profession leads the way in promoting the flexibility needed to get the best from and for everybody.

Women need to champion women and should do so from the start. They are at their most high status at the outset, when they are bright, young, almost male-equivalent assets to the business, with influence that they can use to prescribe a better future course for themselves and other women.

This can best be done as part of a women’s campaigning group so that women are not forced to take their identity only from their professional role, where they need to fit into a man’s world, but can also have a specific female reference point from a community of similar campaigning women.

In short the Lord Chief Justice, who is unlikely to be able to set up some women’s campaign groups, will need to support programmes that aid the retention of women in the profession if he is going to succeed in having the level playing field he seeks.