Deep-rooted male dominance and power across the legal profession holds women back, but is change for the better on the horizon? This article discusses the evidence and looks at how male dominance of senior positions and promotion pathways is related to the cultural problems that have enabled those who behave inappropriately, or worse, to operate for so long. More importantly, we explore the practical steps that could help to create an equal and safe profession where success is based solely on merit, not gender.
For feminist barrister and women’s rights advocate Dr Charlotte Proudman, the movement may mark a “watershed moment”: “When victims of Harvey Weinstein began coming forward, with high-profile women in Hollywood putting a spotlight on the serious abuse going on within the echelons of power in the movie industry, it caused a ripple effect into other workplace sectors and we have seen more women in the legal profession speaking out publicly, albeit often anonymously, for the first time about their own experiences of harassment and discrimination by those senior to them and holding power over them. Nothing of this nature has happened before – in the past when the odd case became public, a woman was demonised, such as myself, or it was either swept under the carpet or did not gain such a level of media traction that other women felt compelled to come forward to report other instances. Now there is a movement and wide discussion about the prevalence of this behaviour, how wrong it is and how something needs to change.”
“NDAs are a significant problem because they silence women from speaking out and effecting change,” Proudman explains. “The covering up of sexual assault and harassment often in the context of elite firms enables patterns of harassment and abuse to continue unchallenged. This is also just one example of the law itself being used to reinforce male power and privilege and to provide the perfect climate for male abuse and exploitation to flourish unchecked, which is particularly worrying for the legal profession which is supposed to be the upholders of the rule of law – you know, equality and freedom”.
Proudman, a staunch supporter of quotas, puts the case: “Quotas are certainly one way of achieving more equal representation of men and women. They are also not unheard of in law – Belgium’s constitutional court uses them, for example. I don’t agree with the argument that quotas would make women feel undermined by men believing that they are only there because they are women – there are plenty of examples of women who are better qualified for such roles and have more experience, but aren’t being promoted to top positions because of their gender. I think appointing women to senior positions would create greater confidence among other women.”
She continues: “Shami Chakrabarti is one of the only high-profile women lawyers who champions quotas, and she does so compellingly in her new book, Of Women in the 21st Century. If there is a change of government at the next election and Chakrabarti is appointed attorney general, we might then start to see a real change for the better. We have tried mentoring, which is very slow and often results in men mentoring women because there aren’t enough women in senior positions to mentor the women more junior to them. We also unfortunately see structural inequality manifest itself whereby a small number of women who have attained senior positions feeling threatened if other women are brought on board, because they believe that there only a small piece of the pie is allocated to women and therefore do not create a supportive environment for others. A famous example however dated it might be is of course Margaret Thatcher, who ensured she was the only senior woman in her government rather than using her power as prime minister to level the playing field for women.”
However, while Proudman agrees that flexible working is imperative, she comes back to the attitudes of some of the men entrenched at the very top of the profession and of society: “I think we are never going to see gender equality unless there is equality of power. That means a redistribution of power where men give up their positions to allow women to have a seat at the table. Many men will not be willing to give up that level of power – are some of the current sitting Supreme Court justices willing to relinquish their positions for women so Lady Hale and Lady Black are not the only two women flying the flag for 50% of the population? I don’t think that men will – and nor are senior partners earning phenomenal salaries at magic circle law firms. Where there is male dominance – unaccountable power held by one social demographic in society – we know that this means that others, such as women, ethnic minorities and disabled people, are vulnerable to exploitation. Conversely where power is balanced between, for example, women and men, the vulnerability to exploitation is reduced. And of course, other intersectional patterns of inequality are important – everyone needs to be represented. Nonetheless women are 50% of the population, so we should be equally represented at all levels of society, even more so in politics and the justice system, which are supposed to be the upholders of democracy.”
Related barristers: Dr Charlotte Proudman