Case study: Baroness Hale

Lady HaleBaroness Hale, Justice of the Supreme Court and President of both the International Association of Women Judges and the UK Association of Women Judges

When you were starting out in your career, did you envisage any particular problems or challenges because of your gender?

Yes, of two sorts. First, there were no women judges, few women barristers or partners in law firms, three colleges for women and 21 for men at Cambridge, so we expected to be in a small minority (could be fun) and not taken seriously (not so much fun). Second, most of our role models were women who had had to choose between marriage and a career. Having it all was a new idea.

How has the reality panned out in comparison?

In the early days, things seemed to be getting better. More and more women were coming into the legal profession and "first women" were being appointed to more and more positions. More and more women were finding it possible to combine career and family. Nowadays, however, not enough women are rising to the top and I am back to being in a small minority (though hopefully still being taken seriously). The problem has shifted from entry to attrition, coupled with persisting assumptions about who gets what sort of job.

Did you/do you have a mentor or role model? Is this important?

My teachers at school and University were mentors. A woman colleague when I was an academic at Manchester University was an important role model in showing that we could combine career and family. It certainly helps to know that it can be done.

Has your family situation had an impact on your career?

Yes. I deliberately chose to stay in academic law rather than in practice as a barrister because it was the more family friendly profession. Much to my surprise, opting for academic law did not prevent me later becoming a judge.

What are the benefits that women can bring to the senior ranks of an organisation?

We need more women judges for many reasons: to show the public that we reflect the whole population, not just one small section of it; to embody the fundamental principles of fairness and equality; to make the best use of our best legal talent; and (some would say) to bring the different perspectives which women who lead women's lives can bring to the administration and development of the law.

In your experience, why don’t more women make it to the top?

The assumption is that only the top barristers become top judges. For various reasons women can find it hard to combine practice at the bar with having a family (or even having a life) although it can be done.

What do you think can be done about this?

Tackle those assumptions and tackle the attrition rate. This needs a concerted effort from everyone: the professions, the people who appoint judges, and the people who organise how judges spend their time. They need to analyse why there is such an attrition rate, what might be done about it, and what might be done to recognise the merit of those very able women who have "down-sized" their careers but would make excellent judges.

What advice would you give to a woman trying to reach a position of power in the UK?

Don't let the challenges and obstacles put you off; don't have your life planned out in advance; take every exciting opportunity that comes your way and give it your all; go for it!

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