Lord Sumption wants to talk about women in the judiciary; why?
05 Monday Oct 2015
If I ever meet him, I will of course ask him – but in the meantime, the best I can ascertain from the article about his interview (and the transcript has not been published) is that he is concerned that women entering in the judiciary in larger numbers could have “appalling consequences in other directions”, one reason being that if women ended up becoming the larger percentage, as is the case in France where (horror) women make up 85% of the judiciary, men might be put off from applying for the judiciary; in his words: “85% women is just as bad as 85% men”. What made me laugh about this argument was that for a man with a brain the size of a planet, one might have expected him to realise that it was an own goal; the same can of course be said of the position now in relation to women being put off by the current predominance of males.
As to that, Sumption’s answer is that the ‘status’ of women in society has involved an ‘enormous cultural change’ that has only happened recently and must happen naturally. My response to that is twofold. First, outrage that he can use this language at all. He is probably totally unaware that this will be heard by many in this way: “may I remind you madam that your current status is only recently acquired”. How you are heard is just as important as what you say. And secondly, concern as to his awareness of how women got basic rights in the first place, something that did not happen exactly ‘naturally’.
We all know men and women are not the same. We all know that all men and all women are not the same. Most of us understand that intelligence is not a clear measurable quality and possesses many aspects. Lord Sumption no doubt possesses many of them, but unlikely all. The aspiration for diversity is an aspiration towards bringing all of humanity’s qualities together for the common good; of valuing different views and different approaches – and of realising that there is often no single right answer (although Lord Sumption might disagree with that). Of course, some qualities are particularly important for judicial office but Lord Sumption’s approach suggests that these can only be found using the current approach; that only the status quo will protect the ‘delicate organism’ that he considers is our legal system.
But let’s consider the status quo. Let’s consider the idea that the Bar is a lifestyle choice that is so tough that only men are willing to take it. The first thing that struck me about this point is that it could only be made by someone who did not understand the economic imperative of work. Most people at the Bar work for a living – not as a lifestyle choice. They may have chosen the bar but they have to work. I have repeatedly noted that people assume my career is for my personal gratification or ego – a ‘hobby’ – rather than to support myself and my family; this itself is sub-conscious sexism that necessarily affects women’s careers at the Bar. But as a colleague pointed out to me, many women silks at least, are the sole or main-breadwinners in their household. They work because they have to work.
The second thing that struck me about this comment was that it ignored the appalling emotional fall-out caused by the Bar’s working practices. In 20 years I have seen suicides, alcohol-related deaths, heart-attacks and break-downs. Numerous colleagues’ marriages and partnerships have fallen to pieces and parents have not been able to see their children sufficiently to build the kind of relationships that make for happy lives. Let’s not kid ourselves that men choose this. Men suffer from it too.
Is any of it necessary? Of course it’s not. It has developed like this because women are only recently part of the Bar and because women are still not sufficiently represented on the Bench, which ultimately decides how barristers work. There is no need for it to continue. If lifestyle is the problem, as Lord Sumption believes, then it’s time to change that lifestyle.