by Maia Gibb
With the increasing saturation of the legal industry, the current challenge for practitioners has become one of gaining sufficient visibility: be it as an aspiring solicitor, to secure those coveted training contracts, or as a professional lawyer, hoping to make your mark in the legal field. OWLSS’s first panel discussion of the term, ‘Remarkable Women in Law: How to Stand Out from the Crowd’, focused on this issue. The discussion centred on past and present issues faced by women in their legal careers, and how to surmount these challenges to become industry leaders.
1. Challenges facing women in the legal industry
The first step to overcoming our challenges is to candidly acknowledge that they exist. This sentiment was expressed by Helen Mountfield QC, founding member of Matrix Chambers and Principal of Mansfield College. Yes, noticeable inroads have been made into overcoming sexism in chambers and in court, with very few of the panellists having faced outright sexism in their careers. Mountfield QC herself had experienced an overall positive working environment. Yet it would be unfair and disrespectful to downplay the real challenges women experience in the industry. Kirsty Brimelow QC, Head of the International Human Rights Team, Doughty Street Chambers, provided an insightful anecdote: she described how, as a young barrister, she had been subjected to a sexist comment - and a senior female barrister had quickly rose to her defense.
This positive change, however, has given rise to a more subtle sexism. Joanna Hardy, criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers, described ‘wounded budgie syndrome’: where older, more senior male barristers view young professional women as though they are “lucky even to be in the room”. Such patronizing attitudes undermine womens’ professional standing in workplace environments, and differentiate the treatment of women as against the general workforce. Helen agreed, noting that general trends of sexism increase with age: senior males feel threatened by the entry of women into positions of power, perceiving that their sphere of authority is being encroached upon.
2. Sexism and Motherhood
Sally Penni, Founder of Women in Law UK and barrister at Kenworthy's Chambers, shared her experiences of sexism around motherhood. When she returned from maternity leave, her coworkers made the assumption that that she would not want to be involved in certain cases, and completely excluded her from the conversations surrounding such work. These assumptions - even if well-meaning - inadvertently create barriers to career progression, and this has been reflected in research statistics: the numbers of women at entry-level positions in chambers and law firms are far higher than those in top leadership positions. Recognising and understanding that such minute, mundane conversational exclusions are forms of sexism is important - especially where tackling the less-blatant forms of gender discrimination.
3. What is a ‘remarkable’ woman in law?
For Sally, women who act on their values and make choices in regard to the future are the most remarkable. It is difficult enough to balance the daily routine of life at the bar - so when women professionals are able to step out their immediate contexts, to consider their decisions in terms of broader impacts they make on the legal industry, this often leads to important change.
For Kirsty, confidence is the defining feature of a remarkable female lawyer. Her experiences, both in and out of the courtroom, have showed her that a fearlessness to be one’s own person always inspires those around you.
Joanna looks up to women who have carved their own way at the bar, taking non-traditional pathways. It is easy to follow the traditional model - relentlessly taking case after case - but every barrister is different. It is ceaselessly inspiring to see how women are using innovative methods to balance casework with their other roles: as judges, academics or as mothers.
For a further insight to life at the bar, check out this video: First 100 Years Biography: Helen Mountfield QC.
Maia Gibb is a Staff Writer for the OWLSS. Her interests include commercial law, technology and the interrelation of the two. Maia is currently a committee member of Oxford Women in Business and the Oxford Guild Business Society. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.