Last week, the InterLaw Diversity Forum for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Networks held an event exploring the subject ‘Feminist judgments: how women can, and do, shape the law’.
The engagement and support of LGBT women in the legal sector is a key issue for the forum. Through our Women’s Initiative, led by myself, we plan such events because we believe it is critical to highlight the different experiences and challenges of women in the City. We seek to provide support to individuals and employers to improve the retention and advancement of women across the legal sector.
The issues for women in professional roles, whether gay or straight, are predominantly the same: pay equality and an equal chance of promotion. We had over 125 attendees at the event, including a wide range of women (and some men) from across the City, including legal, banking, LGBT and straight allies.
We were honoured to have Baroness Hale of Richmond (the only female member of the Supreme Court) speak about the importance of women’s perspectives for the law and how women can contribute to different legal decisions. Following Hale’s introduction, we looked into three decisions of the English courts which provoke discussion about what a ‘feminist’ judgment in these cases might have looked like.
The ‘Feminist judgments’ project was undertaken by a group of legal scholars led by Professor Rosemary Hunter of the University of Kent, and Professor Clare McGlynn and Dr Erika Rackley of the University of Durham. This is a collaboration which has sought to write alternative feminist judgments to significant legal cases; as opposed to producing academic critiques.
The project aimed to consider how decisions might have been reached from a feminist perspective. The cases considered were: Royal Bank of Scotland Plc v Etridge (No 2)  UKHL 44; Wilkinson v Kitzinger  EWHC 2022 (Fam); and R v A (No 2)  UKHL 25.
Hale received much attention for her comments at the event about the large number of members of the senior judiciary who are also members of the same men-only club. This attention should not obscure her true concerns. In quoting celebrated US Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo, Hale stated: ‘The eccentricities of judges balance one another, out of the attrition of diverse minds there is beaten something which has a constancy, a uniformity, an average value greater than its component elements.’
Her point was clear: without a diverse and inclusive judiciary which reflects our society, we will have limited ‘eccentricities’ of which Judge Cardozo spoke, or as Hale so adeptly put it: ‘So that is why it really matters that we should have a true diversity of minds at the highest level.’
It was a priority for us to co-chair this important discussion on gender, sexuality and the law. By any measure, the City has failed to promote or pay women fairly. There are many opportunities for women to succeed and there are a number of inspirational women in the legal profession, not least Hale, but the profession must do more to ensure that the numbers of women entering the profession have an equal chance of rising up the ladder to leadership roles.
Hale summed it up best: ‘There are still far too many systemic barriers to recognising the merit that so many women have, because of the strange ways in which people define merit – something to do with the way in which the work is organised; something to do with the way in which commitment is defined; and something to do with the culture which depends upon personal relationships and informal networks.’
This is not just a ‘women’s issue’, but an issue for all of us in the profession. These systemic barriers exist for many groups – you can replace gender with the other strands of diversity including age, race, ethnic origin, belief, disability, sexual orientation, sexual identity or social mobility. There is much work to be done to ensure that the legal sector raises the best and brightest to its highest ranks and truly reflects the society which it serves.
Laura Hodgson is a professional support lawyer at Norton Rose. Daniel Winterfeldt , head of capital markets and a US securities lawyer at CMS Cameron McKenna, also contributed to this article. For more information on the forum visit its website