Equality, Diversity, Judges and an Angry Academic

So, Lord Sumption. That went well then. I don’t think I have been quite so angry about remarks made by a Supreme Court judge, well, ever. Angry on a personal level because when he speaks about women and our lifestyle choices he is also speaking partly about me; angry on a professional level as a teacher because his comments potentially do a huge amount of damage and can have a profound impact on those young women who might now think that a career in law is not for them; angry on a professional level as a researcher because his comments are simply wrong, misguided at best, misogynistic crap actually popped into my head first.
If you don’t know what I am talking about take a look at the Evening Standard from Monday which reported on an interview with Lord Sumption in which he suggested that a ‘Rush for gender equality with top judges ‘could have appalling consequences for justice’’
There are also sorts of levels of angry here and I have tried over the last few days to draft something measured and thought through to post here. I’ve failed. I’m too angry. So, let’s just go with that, let’s forget measured and thought through for a minute. Here’s how I feel a few days on from first reading the comments. This isn’t about my research on women judges, this isn’t about me as an academic, this is just about me as a woman who routinely stands in front of lots of young women who have dreams and ambitions to change the world. Too right I’m not bloody measured.
1. Lord Sumption is talking partly about me, about women all over the country. He talks of appalling consequences if we rush gender equality. What are they exactly? That the judiciary might take account of a more diverse set of viewpoints? That the status quo won’t be upheld? That him and his friends will no longer be first in line for life’s advantages? That there’s no-one left at home to iron his shirts? Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I have no idea if Lord Sumption irons his own shirts or not but seeing as he sees fit to speak about my life and the life of all women without knowing anything about it maybe I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that he doesn’t.
2. Lifestyle choices… What does that even mean?
3. I would have thought that the good sense to refuse to work yourself to death and try and create some kind of work life balance is something that shows that you are a fairly sensible, rounded and balanced human being. I would say that qualifies rather than disqualifies you from joining the judiciary. Yet Lord Sumption seems to think that women’s refusal to tolerate the long hours is a lifestyle choice and one that makes us unfit for the top job.
4. Equality will happen naturally? I expect more from a historian! Women got the vote naturally did they? There wasn’t anything about a suffragette movement, no incident with the King’s horse… No? And what about poor Miss Bebb? Of course it wasn’t her fight that led to women being allowed to become solicitors, no of course not. The Law Society just decided naturally one day to let us in? Oh please.
5. If this is what Lord Sumption thinks about gender – what about diversity more generally? I don’t think I want to know, I think I’d throw things
6. Lord Sumption is wrong. He doesn’t think there is an old boys network, he thinks the Bar is meritocratic and he seems to think that the best people get the top jobs (thus implying that women are not the best people). Well I guess we tend not to see the wood for the trees. For anyone not immersed in that world it is hard to see how the Bar is anything other than an old boys network. It is hard to see how it can possibly be meritocratic and it is clear that it is not the best legal minds that get the top jobs but rather the best connected, the ones able to put themselves forward, the ones best able to take advantage of privilege and opportunity, not the best legal minds, not the people who would be best at the job…
7. I could launch into a long paragraph about what merit means but I’ll save that for another day. Let’s just say that having been the most highly paid QC is not necessarily something I would look for when selecting a judge.
8. Lord Sumption makes a lot of assumption and perhaps the most problematic is that senior judges should come from the Bar. The Bar is elitist, it’s London centric, it’s almost impossible to get into if you’re a black kid from a council estate who is funnelled into a local comprehensive school and gets a place at the local university. But it’s ok, candidates at all levels are selected on merit.
9. Lord Sumption doesn’t understand power and privilege. He doesn’t understand how society works. He doesn’t understand how merit doesn’t work if merit is defined by people like him with all the privilege in the world.
10. But here’s what really breaks my heart: I stood in front of a class full of first year law students today. Most of them non-white, most of them female and all of them with dreams and ambitions to change the world. None of them have had an easy ride to get to University, none of them have ever experienced the kind of privilege that is normal for Lord Sumption. What do I say to them? How do I keep their dreams alive? How can I possibly show them that they are as good and sometimes better than the so called elite? How do I convince them that they can change the world, that their backgrounds, who they are right now, is a huge part of what qualifies them to go and change the world? How do I do that when a Supreme Court Judge, through one stupid interview, tells them that they don’t belong in that world.
So yes, I’m angry but I should probably get back to my ironing.

2 responses to “Equality, Diversity, Judges and an Angry Academic

  1. 100% agree with your comments Jess. Lord Sumption making Ass-umptions.

    The ending of the lecture today though was the highlight for me as its something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently having applied to some of the magic circle law firms, only getting a telephone interview when I didn’t answer my age, race, religion (coincidence?). I do believe we have ‘unconscious’ sexism, maybe racism? and elitism in the legal industry.

    I had the privilege of meeting Baroness Hale in Leeds a year ago, her comments on diversity within the legal industry were very interesting (obviously focusing on gender, but I think the same could be said for diversity in general).

    Its not all bad though, California has a very diverse supreme court – and its decisions are the most followed of any state SC in the USA!

  2. Thanks for this, both passionate and rationally well argued.

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