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What is wrong with this picture?

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Clue: there’s a female judge. In reality, men dominate courtrooms. Stylist asks if the lack of women at the top of the judiciary is damaging UK justice?

Illustration: Priscilla Coleman

We’re not suggesting that any of you are destined for a life of criminality – or have a shady history in money laundering – but should you ever find yourself inside a courtroom, a few things will become immediately obvious. Firstly, you’re probably in a spot of trouble. Secondly, designers of courtrooms tend to be big on dark wood panels. Thirdly, your judge – the person who will ultimately decide your sentence – is most likely going to be a public school-educated, white, middle-aged man. Women who wear the white wig and wield the gavel are a rare species indeed.

In fact, for women, it would seem the higher levels of the legal profession are a closed shop. There are so few women in the top echelons of law that the miniscule number who have clambered their way to the top are often so utterly appalled by the all-male landscape that they have decided to make some noise about it. And rightly so. Because while we’re all well aware of the lack of women in the boardroom, the everpresent pay gap, and the gender equality issues bestriding all industries, it’s a little disconcerting that the very establishment that imparts justice throughout our nation is run from a largely male point of view.

Baroness Hale, who was called to the Bar in 1969 and became the first (and only) woman to sit on the UK’s Supreme Court in 2004, is the most senior female judge in UK legal history. She’s particularly vocal about what she sees as “unconscious sexism” in law’s recruiting of women. Only last month, when addressing the London School of Economics, she indicated that women are such a rare breed in legal circles, they’re simply not considered when it comes to recruitment. “If you hardly ever see a woman,” she argued, “you don’t really know how to assess somebody who’s a candidate.”

Earlier this year the Legal Services Board published findings that showed female lawyers are paid over £50,000 less than their male peers and Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said in January, “Unwittingly, [some] firms may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men…

If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall.” Women in law are preparing for a fight – just putting up with the status quo, the traditional white, male middle-class hegemony, is obviously not high on the agenda.

Gender bias

England and Wales has a pitiful number of female judges – just 23%, leaving it fourth bottom in Europe, with only Scotland, Armenia and Azerbaijan worse off. By comparison, in Slovenia women constitute 78% of judges, in Greece they make up 65% and in France 64%. Not only that, in England and Wales, all the heads of division – the Lord Chief Justice, The Master Of The Rolls, the President Of The Family Division, Chancellor Of The High Court and President Of The Queen’s Bench – are men; 33 of the 38 Lord Justices Of Appeal are male, as are 85% of High Court judges and 83% of circuit judges. In February, three Supreme Court appointments were made, all of whom were male.

In contrast, more and more women are joining the legal profession each year; 63.5% of trainee solicitors are women, but in the large legal firms, the percentage of female partners rarely goes beyond 20%. And as the current system only selects senior roles from a select number of well-known law firms, it comes as no surprise that so few women make the top posts. “It is essential in a 21st century democracy that the judiciary reflects the diversity of modern day Britain, so it’s both unacceptable and depressing that women judges are currently only 8% of the higher judiciary,” Cherie Blair told Stylist.

Women are stereotyped as kind, warm, emotional, gentle and not having quite what it takes to tackle tough decisions

The obstacles facing women are many and varied. First of all, there seems to be a distinct disconnect between having a family and having a stellar career. A 2010 study by the Trades Union Congress found that 18% of legal professionals did more than 10 hours of unpaid overtime a week, more than virtually any other profession. But in reality, young lawyers in big firms are expected to work far harder; working days can last from 7am to late into the night, you’re expected to take meals at your desk, socialise with clients in any spare time and work weekends. The Law Society found that three fifths of women leave the legal profession in their 30s, with further research concluding that this was largely due to childcare commitments. Clearly having a family and making partner don’t run in parallel.

Secondly, even if women don’t want children (or have a dedicated nanny), it’s still a battle to claw your way to the top jobs. “It’s just like business,” explains Under-Secretary for Equalities Helen Grant, who is also a lawyer, when discussing why women are being kept in the lower tiers. “[Law] is a man’s world built by men, whether we like it or not. People tend to recruit in their own image, so male imbalance prevails.”

With so few women as role models – and direct bosses – it’s easy to see how women in the law get disheartened. Grant says the legal profession still deals in old-fashioned gender stereotypes: “Men are thought to possess more confidence, more charisma, charm, directness,” she explains. “Women are stereotyped as kind, warm, emotional, gentle and not having quite what it takes to tackle tough decisions.”

Objection Overruled

Equal opportunities aside, there are deeper implications of a justice system built on boys’ clubs, cigars and claret. There is growing evidence to show that male and female judges don’t have the same response to some cases. While the job of a judge is to interpret the law, not dish out moral judgments, there is growing proof that in cases regarding sexual assault, divorce and property issues, female judges can – and do – react very differently to men. If women made more court decisions, we might see longer sentences for perpetrators of sexual violence, more verdicts in favour of female complainants in sex discrimination cases, larger divorce settlements for women and a more sympathetic approach to property disputes.

And in the UK, it looks like we could do with more women in the judge’s chair. We currently have the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe. Only one in 30 victims can expect their attacker to be brought to justice and there are up to 100,000 rape victims each year. Last year, 55 rapists and 1,155 men found guilty of sexually assaulting women were given ‘soft’ sentences (fined or put on community sentences). Meanwhile, a recent University of Cambridge paper showed that following divorce the income of men increases by around 23% while that of women decreases by 31%. Plus in the 14,700 sex discrimination cases recorded in April 2011 to March 2012, only 4,500 reached a settlement; 4,200 were struck out.

Take this as a case in point: in January this year, Hesam Khosravi was convicted of raping a woman twice and recording both attacks on his iPad. Under Judge Adrian Smith he was given six years and during his sentencing, Smith claimed that Khosravi, 24, was a well-educated man from a “decent, supportive family” who had become “frighteningly menacing” during the attack. Fast forward three months and the case has just emerged from the appeal courts. After watching the “excruciating” footage where the victim’s pain and distress was “obvious” (courtroom members were warned about the contents of the video before it was played), Lady Justice Hallett, the first ever vice president of the Queen’s Bench Division, felt an additional five years would be more appropriate.

What’s more, a growing number of reports suggest females may be more empathy driven and more concerned with the greater good, and therefore potentially could make fairer judges. Dr Carla Herenski of The Mind Research Network has found that when looking at images of immoral acts, women have higher levels of activation in the brain’s emotion centres than men. Similarly, Dr Tania Singer, of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College London, found that watching images of wrongdoers being punished lit up the empathy centres in female brains, but the same footage triggered male reward centres. Not only that, a 2001 report in The Quarterly Journal of Economics showed that women tend to be more egalitarian than men, who swerve between being selfish or selfless.

Importantly, it’s been proven that female judges don’t equate to greater lenience towards women – in fact, while men seem more reluctant to send women to prison for fear of looking too harsh (the so-called ‘chivalry effect’), female judges don’t have the same problem. In a 2001 University of Nebraska study, male judges sent 12% of women to prison compared to 20% by female judges. But women are also important voices in a sea of men; a 2011 paper in the Journal Of Empirical Legal Studies found that when there is one or more female judge present on a panel of judges, this influences the decisions of their male colleagues.

There’s little doubt that increasing the number of women in law is important. And there are green shoots of change. Chairman of the Bar Council Maura McGowan is expending a lot of energy into making the profession more family friendly with ventures including London’s first Bar Nursery. Also, this month, Charlotte Hughes-Deane, a 33-year- old commercial law barrister, wife and mother of two from Liverpool, was made a judge on the northern circuit, making her the UK’s youngest female judge. And since March, three women – Dame Victoria Sharp, Dame Julia Macur and Dame Elizabeth Gloster – have been promoted to the High Court.

The movement for change is gaining momentum. The large law firms are starting diversity programmes but it’s up to women in law to grab the opportunities that are available and put themselves forward for the top jobs. Just as Helen Grant says: “We can’t just sit around waiting.”

Priscilla Coleman (who created the illustration above) is one of the UK’s foremost court illustrators. She captured Naomi Campbell in her libel case against the Mirror in 2004 and drew Heather Mills throwing a jug of water over Paul McCartney’s lawyer Fiona Shackleton in 2008. Priscilla can create a sketch in as little as 15 minutes

Leading Ladies of the Law Courts

Four of Britain’s most influential legal minds

Picture credit: Rex Features

Lady Justice Heather Hallett

The first female vice president of the Queen’s Bench Division. As a young barrister she was propositioned by a male judge and describes the atmosphere of the courts in the Eighties as “horrific”. Supports bringing more women into the industry.

Baroness Helena Kennedy

A barrister for 30 years, she highlighted the Bar’s lack of equal opportunities during the Seventies and Eighties. Despite being a Labour peer, she criticised the Blair government’s erosion of legal rights and likened then-Home Secretary David Blunkett to Robert Mugabe.

Gareth Peirce

A journalist in the US during the Sixties, Peirce came back to the UK in the Seventies, got a law degree and carved out a reputation for battling miscarriages of justice. Clients include the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and, recently, Julian Assange.

Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond

As a barrister and professor of law at Manchester University, Hale was the first ever woman to become a law lord in 2004. In February this year, she was named the fourth most powerful woman in England by BBC Radio 4.

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