Lord Sumption, a senior Supreme Court judge and one of the profession’s most celebrated barristers, has suggested that it could take as long as 50 years to achieve gender equality within the judiciary. He argues that when considering the continuously progressing nature of the law, 50 years in the grand scheme of things is “a very short time”.
These comments were made in response to general questions raised about gender inequality within the legal profession, and the reasons why women are statistically less likely to achieve acclaim in the judiciary. Lord Sumption’s answers appear to disregard the issue of gender equality, as if it’s not imperative or important enough to warrant immediate campaign to instigate change. In other words, this is something we have to patiently wait for.
The main issue with this is that equality is not a process akin to evolution, which naturally happens over a period of time – it is something which must be fought for. How can that be achieved when no one within the judiciary is neither fighting nor willing for it to happen?
Instead, Lord Sumption takes the view that “equality cannot happen overnight, not without appalling consequences in other directions”. Although it is agreed that equality cannot be granted instantaneously – particularly in a profession dominated by traditional values and views – I wholly disagree with his statement that an influx of female judges will see a decline in male applicants:
We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them. If we do that we will find that male candidates don’t apply in the right numbers. Eighty-five per cent of newly appointed judges in France are women because the men stay away. Eighty-five per cent women is just as bad as eighty-five per cent men.
Whilst Lord Sumption is correct to affirm the importance of maintaining a fair balance between male and female represented judges, it cannot be said with merit that an increase in women judges will be met with a decline in male judges. This naturally raises another important question – why is it okay to have a higher male to female ratio as opposed to a female to male ratio? It must be remembered that the main argument is for gender equality, not to fashion a topsy-turvy gender inequality.
The microcosm of the legal profession seems to reflect the macrocosm of our patriarchal society. This is reinforced by Lord Sumption’s assertion that reasons contributing to less women pursuing a career within the judiciary include the demanding and long working hours, which may conflict with other domestic commitments. This is an issue not only prevalent within the judiciary, but in all other legal professions. Barristers, for example, are predominantly self-employed, and are therefore subject to limited rights in terms of maternity leave and sick pay. For most female barristers this presents a difficult cross-road, in which women have to essentially choose between furthering their career and their right to have children; a choice that should be unnecessary when the two need not be mutually exclusive.
In spite of the various enraging comments made by Lord Sumption, it was refreshing to hear a senior male judge recognise that “the lack of diversity is a significant problem” within the legal framework, and bring this to the forefront of our attention. In the UK there are only 25% of practicing female judges, a percentage which decreases as you follow the hierarchy of courts. In fact, only 21 of 106 high court judges are women. It is Lord Sumption’s viewpoint that this is founded upon a “cultural tradition which is genuinely based on public service, people feeling that at the end of a successful career at the bar becoming a judge is something that you ought to be willing to do”. This however, reaffirms gender inequality in all aspects of the profession and not just the judiciary.
Lord Sumption’s comments present a realistic insight into the infrastructure of the legal profession, and the way in which it naturally favours prospective male candidates. Although a hard hitting reality revealing inherent sexism, the rigidity of the structure, and its unwillingness to waiver in terms of certain traditions, is something which needs to be understood in order to instigate successful change. This change will hopefully encompass all areas of the legal profession, not just the judiciary. I agree with Lord Sumption that equality cannot be rushed and it does take time, considering the significant cultural change it will instigate, given the considerable societal influence the law possesses. That being said, 50 years is far too long to procrastinate for.