How Mary McAleese played the hand she was dealt.

Published 27th May 2016

Mary McAleese, the second woman ever elected as president of Ireland, discusses the structural prejudices which are holding back the new generation of women working in law. She identifies the pressures facing female lawyers and the ways to overcome them, as well as the crucical importance of female voices in public affairs.

At the recent Rosie Conversation hosted by WILL (Women in Law London), and Bristows, Mary McAleese discussed her experiences of working in the law with Jo Coburn and Baroness Butler-Sloss. The resulting conversation provided a fascinating insight into how she sees the future of the legal profession for women.

Positions of public office have historically been dominated by men, with the result that working environments can feel aggressively masculine. But Mary McAleese found herself conducting her presidency of Ireland in a ‘peculiarly mammyish’ way. She described how she always behaved as authentically as possible. In response to the criticism sometimes levied against women in power that they are ‘playing the woman card’ she retorted that it was the hand she was dealt. As president, her slogan was ‘building bridges’, a campaign to bridge an historic chasm in Ireland. Achieving this required a faith in talking and communicating as the only way of resolving the deep sectarian conflicts of her country. She therefore demonstrated that traditionally male dominated roles can be fulfilled with enormous success, and whilst challenging the status quo of getting things done

Her achievements as president show the great changes that can take place with a different approach. Listening to all sides of a dispute and creating an open dialogue were hallmarks of the unique stamp she put on her presidency, demonstrating how much can be done when previously unheard voices are included. When women are made present, visible, and valued in public spheres, they offer another side of the story and a wealth of different experiences. Their ideas make businesses work better, yet women constitute an increasing wasted pool of talent.
Women need to help eachother. The immense privilege of women working in the law in the UK is something Mary says is completely alien to the experience of the majority of women around the world. Given that three quarters of illiterate people are women, the women in the legal profession are living in the ‘landscape of possibility’, seeing the other side of the moon as far as advances in gender equality. McAleese, a devout Catholic has denounced the Catholic church’s refusal to allow women to be priests as just one aspect of the institutionalised sexism which denies women the support and encouragement to realize their potential. The injustice of such policies are thrown into sharp relief given that nuns, the foot soldiers of the church, do the vast majority of the charitable work and day-to-day running of affairs.

She proposes quotas as an essential tool for achieving female equality because they force the hand of organisations to actually elevate women to a position where they can be heard and seen. Quotas address the underlying prejudice holding women back, but it is not the only issue to be addressed. The lifestyle demanded of people who work in law is a major factor in why women are discouraged. Mary McAleese describes this as the problem that the new generation of lawyers must solve. She calls the hours demanded by many law firms a ‘crucifixion’, having seen first hand women sometimes working 13-hour days. The ingrained system of torturously long hours is not only damaging for women. Men also suffer from the ‘inhuman’ patterns of work, forcing their careers to consume their time at the expense of their families.

A more controversial topic that Mary addressed was the internalized misogyny of many women that holds gender equality back. She argued that the most repressed women are often discouraged from advancing themselves by their own mothers and grandmothers, a seemingly incomprehensible problem. The idea of senior women ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ behind them has been explained as due to the career insecurity that they feel. But a supportive female network for women in law is essential to advance and support their careers. The Bar Council, on the basis of interviews with self-employed female barristers, recommends the mentoring of junior women by more senior women as a way to encourage their confidence and make the profession more rewarding. Mary argued that some women need to be educated and sensitized in order to create a climate where women are helping eachother to achieve equality.