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Posts tagged ‘equality’


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.


Taking a look at a glass closet

I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.

So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.

I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.

So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me.  But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.

Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.

I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!



Reading ‘On Liberty’ by Shami Chakrabarti

The real luxury of having a few days off work is that I have actually had time to read – not read as I do for work but just curl up on the sofa for hours at a time and actually enjoy a book. For Christmas/my Birthday I got several books but was most excited about On Liberty. On Liberty

Whenever I hear Shami Chakrabarti speak she always makes perfect sense to me. She can articulate clearly things that I just sort of feel but can neither put my finger on nor reason out fully. So you might say my expectations were high when I started reading. I finished the book in 3 sittings – the first only cut short by my inability to keep my eyes open past 11pm and the second by a cat deciding the book would make a comfy pillow. It’s a good book, it’s an easy read but it is also an important book. It’s a book, that for me, puts into focus why I like living here, why my politics are my politics, why I love law and why I love teaching law and teaching it at an institution like the University of Bradford.

I’m not a human rights lawyer, I have a basic familiarity with the legal provisions and even some of the cases (told as the personal stories they are in the book!) but I’m no expert and to read this, to understand it and to really think about it you don’t need to be. Shami has done the hard bit for us all and she writes so clearly and so persuasively that I find myself wondering why I hadn’t been able to articulate exactly that before I read her arguments. The key thing I keep coming back to – because like any good book On Liberty haunts me for a bit making it impossible to start another book, impossible to really think about anything other than the arguments or the story while what I read whirls around in my head – yes the key thing is this: The Rule of Law.

In various contexts I have been thinking about the rule of law lately. I have been involved in various committees etc inclusing one looking at the Quality Assurance Agency standards for law degrees in the form of the subject benchmark; there’s the various Law Learned Associations and our responses to changes to the regulation of the education and training for lawyers and then there is of course the introduction of new programmes at Bradford. All of these activities throw up the question of what we/I think a law graduate should understand/know/be able to do. What is a law graduate? Well, after reading On Liberty it seems to me that the answer is actually quite simpe – A law graduate must understand the rule of law, know its importance and be able to defend it. That’s it. Everything else is detail.

And of course I mean rule of law proper – not some watered down for convenience version where the powerful get to make exceptions when it suits them. Of course Shami is writing in a particular context – that of Human Rights and it is here where the need for adherence to the rule of law is perhaps at its most obvious, where it hits you in the face but there are countless other examples and the strength of the book, in my view, is that it shows how all our rights and those of others are interconnected. Things that do not immediately jump out as Human Rights issues so cleary are if you just stop to think for a minute (or accept that not everyone can have as brilliant a mind as Shami Chakrabarti and let her take you through the argument instead).

Occassionally the book rambled a little but in a good way, the way conversations ramble and move from one issue to the next not always following a predictable path but getting to the point nonetheless. It does this even where the terrain gets tricky, teacherous even. I like that Shami does not shy away from calling things difficult, that she admits that sometimes things make her uncomfortable. I read the passages about religion towards the end of the book with interest. I have always struggled reconciling my views on human rights, equality, religion etc and once again Shami does it for me – it’s ok to feel uncomfortable about religious symbols, dress etc but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow people to wear them. It’s ok to be offended and it is ok to offend. There must never be a right not to be offended, I agree. I also agree that there are difficult lines to be drawn for each of us personally and maybe also legally  so I leave you with this quote from the TV Series The West Wing which Shami uses (see p 120) and which is one I had noted down for teaching. In the series (fictional) Matt Santos, Presidential Candidate, says this about the US Constitution and religion: ‘This wasn’t designed to make us comfortable. It was desgined to keep us free’. I think it applies to Human Rights and the rule of law too.