I was thrilled to be shortlisted for a major prize – but our route to the top should be based on ability, not gender.
I was absolutely thrilled to be shortlisted for woman lawyer of the year in the 2016 Law Society Excellence Awards. Don’t get me wrong: if I could do a handstand I would have done one. The Law Society awards have been an inspiration to me for as long as I have been a lawyer and I was truly honoured to be up there with the great and the good of the solicitors’ profession.
When I arrived at the awards night on 20 October at the Hilton Park Lane dressed to the nines and surrounded by the didlaw team I was even more blown away. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I certainly didn’t think it would be as glamorous: there was so much razzmatazz. It was like something from the X Factor or Strictly. And the dancing, the dancing! It was a fabulous night and I take my hat off to the Law Society for making it a truly spectacular event.
People kept asking me if I wanted to win. I told them I genuinely did not care. I was so flattered to be shortlisted and when I looked at the calibre of other women listed I was even more impressed with myself. I did not win – that honour went to Ruth Grant of Hogan Lovells for her ceaseless determination to create a cultural shift within her firm. I did not mind losing to such an outstanding diversity advocate. But then I started thinking about what was wrong with ‘crowning’ anyone woman lawyer of the year.
Let’s get real: women have been in the profession for a century almost. We are not the new kids on the block. We are still missing at the upper echelons but we are here and soon we will be the majority.
Every woman solicitor knows that Carrie Morrison was the first woman to be admitted to the roll in 1922. And all women lawyers look up to Baroness Hale, the first female Supreme Court justice and a fierce advocate for women. She is now deputy president of the court. In her now infamous speech about the lack of women and diversity on the bench more generally she said there is a special place in hell for a woman who achieves a certain status and does not help the next woman to get there too, and the next and the next.
Recently Inner Temple announced to the legal world that it had commissioned a portrait of its five lady justices in the Court of Appeal. Great stuff surely but why do we have to celebrate something that should just happen and not be newsworthy at all?
The lack of women judges in the Supreme Court is embarrassing. In September, six High Court judges were bumped up to the Court of Appeal. How many were women? One. But it’s not just the bench that lacks women. It is across the solicitors’ profession. In my daily dealings with partners in City law firms I only ever deal with men. Imagine what that says about the ascent of women in law?
In the past decade I have only been against one woman partner in employment law. In almost every case the person supporting the partner as associate or senior associate has been a woman. It’s no secret that woman outnumber men in employment law. I won’t go into what stops women becoming partners (the motherhood penalty, the work-life conundrum) but I will say this: something is up in a profession that counts more women than men and yet is still a man’s world.
There would be an outcry and outrage if a person was nominated as LGBT lawyer of the year or BME lawyer of the year. Imagine being nominated as disabled lawyer of the year? All three are a complete no-no but still we celebrate the women who make it to the top. I can only hope that future generations will look back and snigger. No one wants to be celebrated or pigeonholed regarding their attributes as a person: it should be about skills and ability.
But then women who do well are still branded as strident or opinionated. I am sure I won’t be making any friends in the writing of this blog. Men are allowed to be strident and opinionated. These are ‘manly’ qualities, according to gender stereotypes. A woman who shares these qualities is a ‘ball-breaker’, with the clear message that she causes trouble for men.
What we need is for every woman in our profession to stop espousing male opinions about how to behave and do what you need to do to achieve what you want. One of my better skills is, to a great extent, not caring what people think of me. It’s quite liberating.
What we also need is for every male solicitor – especially those who are husbands, fathers, uncles – to realise that women have a right to participate at the highest levels in the profession without being subjected to outdated and patriarchal attitudes. This year I received an email from a partner at a firm telling me I was being emotional and that this did me little credit.
My email to him was not emotional: I was angry. But because I am a woman he interpreted it as female hysteria. I complained to him and his firm’s managing partner. Neither could accept that he had been sexist. He quite simply would not have said this to a man. This is what women have to put up with in law and in the wider world. We all need to call it out so we can stamp it out and pave the way for women to be accepted as equals.
Karen Jackson is director of didlaw