What Role Do Men Have in Helping Women Progress? (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 10th October 2016
As we look forward to the Annual Spark 21 Conference on 9 November 2016 at Simmons & Simmons LLP, the First 100 Years Project will be publishing excerpts of speeches from the 2015 Spark21 Conference every Monday, leading up to this year’s conference. Please visit the website for more information on how to attend.

Panel 3: What role do men have in helping women progress? How men have helped, and can continue to help, women in the profession?

*We feature excerpts from panel discussions with Dan Fitz, Lord Hodge, Malcolm Richardson and Fizel Nejabat.

Dan, what have you done to help women progress?

Specifically, among the things I’ve done is helped champion bringing women forward in the in-house profession and point out to them that there are options other than law firms and the bar that they can explore, that will offer them equally invigorating career but perhaps be more accommodating of life’s ebbs and flows.

Now I’m not saying that it’s the best for all, but I think that women would be remiss if they didn’t consider the in- house track as a way to have that balanced life and career that I think all of us want – men and women – at various times. So if I were to say specifically that is one thing I’ve done, it would be that. Although I hasten to add it is not the only things I’ve done.

The other thing I think I’ve done along with many many others is to give men and women, but women in particular, permission to talk about what they want to do with their lives. We do tend to talk about just the career but the career is not what it’s all about. It is an important part of what it’s all about and I think it should be absolutely fine to put all of your hopes and dreams on the table when you are having that career conversation. And not somehow feel constrained that you have to decide on whether you are going to be a mother or not before you decide what seat you are going to take for heaven sake. The answer is absolutely not but until you hear that from someone in authority be it a man or a woman, people will go around wondering about that. So having the honest conversation and opening it up that there are no wrong preferences here, there are just a series of options given what your preferences are, is an important part of what men can do and should do. So long as we are the ones, temporarily still sitting in seats of power.

How about you, Patrick?

Well, I’ve long been sympathetic with the cause of encouraging women, not least because I had an issue close to home. My wife is a member of a different profession but she was subjected to seriously discriminatory behaviour. And when I was still at the bar in practice, I helped her mount the disciplinary proceedings which achieved a satisfactory outcome.

How have I helped other lawyers? Well I should say first of all, you could probably tell from my voice that I come from North of the border. And so until two years ago I was a judge in Scotland and before that was an advocate in the Scottish Courts. How have I helped my colleagues there? Well, certainly when I was at the bar, I encouraged the pupils to achieve what they could achieve and to aim to take on challenges.

More recently when I became a judge, I have encouraged my former female colleagues at the bar to go for posts such as a public prosecutor, a tribunal judge, a Sheriff – that is the equivalent of a circuit judge. Two of the last three female appointees at Scottish Court of Session bench, I gave the lead reference for. So I’ve tried to encourage, having seen what my wife went through, I’ve tried to encourage my colleagues to achieve what they can.

Malcolm, what have you done?

When I was thinking about coming here I look out of my window in my office in the MA [and] there’s a big plaque with ten key dates concerning the Justice of the Peace. The first one being 1361 which is when the office was created. But almost the last one on there was 1919 which was the appointment of the first female magistrate, Ada Summers. [Today] 52% of magistrates are women. We achieved I think gender equality before that term was even coined. The association has been led by women for the majority of the last 25 years. So you know from that point of view I could say, well we don’t have a problem. The rest of the judiciary were in as good a state as we are. But then reflecting on it and thinking about what discrimination is there, the biggest source of discrimination for the magistracy which I know that this audience will well understand, is that of a voluntary part-time unpaid position.

But actually it’s to that point really because the discrimination that we are seeing is discrimination against employed people being able to take on this role. When I first became a magistrate 25 year ago, I was employed by IBM, and IBM saw it as an integral part of their corporate social responsibility, to enable people to have paid time off to do jobs that were of social use. Only five years after that, by the time I left them, the attitude had already started to change really quite significantly, and there were questions being asked about whether or not you needed to take that day off, or you needed to go to that meeting, or you needed to sit on that particular day – and that just got worse and it has affected the public sector employment area just as much as the private sector now and that hung on a bit longer.

And then actually thinking about it and reflecting on it really today as I was sitting and listening to some of the earlier pieces, that actually that discrimination is disproportionately affecting women. Because you already have to cope with the discrimination which comes from the decision to have children and the career breaks that come with that, however short they might be. Then to go back into the workplace and say by the way, not only have I just had six months off but now I would like you to consider allowing me to have a day a month or a couple of days a month off to go and do something of use to the community. I can well imagine what the response is going to be from any but the most enlightened employers. So I think there is a real challenge there and I don’t think it is something which we as an organisation have actually banged on about enough. My only defence for that is that the magistracy has been going through a huge reductions in numbers for all sorts of reasons. The alleged reduction in crime, certainly a reduction in the number of cases that are being brought to court means that there needs to be less magistrates. So it is not a very sensible thing to go banging on about when you are not actually appointing many people. We are starting to turn the corner on that. For the next couple of years whilst I’m in office [as Chairman], I think it is something which I need to bang on much more about.

Faizal, how would you as a trainee improve the gender balance in the profession you’re probably going to be in for quite a while?

I mean where does one begin? I think I alluded to the fact earlier that as a male in this position you see the gender imbalance and you see some of the imbalances that women face. It’s incumbent on us to talk out and you can’t just wait for somebody else to complain about their problem. If you can see that that person has a problem, and they are not necessarily forthcoming with it, it is your duty to speak out.

And granted that I am a trainee but I will give you some tiny examples. A lot of letters I see sent between law firms still say ‘Dear Sirs’, as though there are no women in the legal profession, as though this letter isn’t addressed to women at all – it’s a very small point but it is quite reflective of the attitude that sort of gets taken. Another sort of thing that we raised that you sort of speak out about, is how one comes across in how they are dressed. Women, unless they’re wearing high heels, some people would say that looks unprofessional, and I would say ‘why?’ I mean one of the trainees was saying, ‘oh, I had quite a lot of difficulty the other day. I had to get on the train. I was standing [and] my feet were uncomfortable so I tried to change my shoes. But then I couldn’t change my shoes because everyone was looking at me’. I was like, ‘I get on the train and I read The Metro’, just the daily sort of problems that you do not have to deal with as a man but as women you do have to deal with. And this is even before you get to some of the bigger stuff.

And if I am just going to sit there in silence as a young male trainee, then people in positions of authority are going to think well there is enough of a contingent here that we can get those guys up and the troublemakers we can sort of keep them quiet. But that is not necessarily the kind of environment that is good for me because if one day something happens or there is a change in attitude or a shift in attitude, which doesn’t necessarily benefit me, I’m going to be stuck. So there is a self interest element to it as well. But actually there is just an element of common sense and equality. Speak out about these things and let people know that actually some things are not quite acceptable.