Diversity in Legal Academia

Published 6th July 2016

This piece gives a snapshot of the state of affairs in legal academia for women, what challenges are faced by female students of law, and what the consequences of these issues are for the legal profession.

In 2014 over 50 senior Cambridge academics called on the university to change its staff appointment procedure because the existing system favoured men. Despite accounting for 45% of the academic workforce, women hold only 20% professorships in UK universities. Dame Carol Black, who spoke at the 2015 First 100 Years conference, said that women need to build their self-confidence and pushing forward in the face of set-backs. She exemplifies this relentless approach for progress, having put herself forward for a number promotions that she didn’t get in the past but continuing relatively undeterred:

My career has constantly been about overcoming low expectations of what women could achieve and the contribution they could make…women need to learn to be kinder to other women in business: all managers and leaders need to learn to be more flexible and open-minded about the candidate who is going to fill that senior post…In academia you are only as good as your last paper so…aiming high is vital…women should also look out for opportunities to support and champion other women. We can look to influential men to help us progress and develop but we need to turn to eachother too.

Dame Carol Black thus acknowledges the difficulty for women in reaching the upper echelons of academia and the concurrent necessity therefore of women looking to eachother to overcome these difficulties. A need of a change of mind-set is clearly articulated, but women being kinder to eachother is by no means the fundamental solution for a lack of gender diversity at the senior level of legal academia. Asiya Islam, currently doing a phD in Sociology at Cambridge, has commented that:

Structural and systemic bias in policies and procedures favour white men, and changing these is the only way to remedy the current shocking scarcity of women in higher positions.

Islam cited Clifford Chance as an example of a firm that has initiated new mechanisms to counteract structural and systemic bias through their CV-blind policy to improve recruitment of ethnic minority candidates.

Both Asiya Islam and Dame Carol Black reveal in their arguments that the implications of gender imbalance at universities stretch into the workplace with a real and lamentable impact on the advancement of women’s careers. Lanie Guinier conducted a study on law schools, concluding that women are less likely to speak in class, and do so for a shorter amount of time, than their male peers. Aside from encouraging smaller classes in favour of the traditionally large classrooms, she also advocates that more women faculty should be hired to encourage ‘multi consciousness’. Multi-consciousness, says Guinier, allows students to draw on a number of different perspectives when deciding how to solve problems, an important mind-set to foster in future lawyers.

Law school professors treat women differently from men, and as institutions, law schools cultivate and reward patterns of behaviour that are more likely to be found among men than among women, even though these behaviours do not necessarily reflect the skills students need to be good lawyers, judges, and legal academics.
(Sari Bashi and Maryana Iskander, 2006)

Beyond this, more women in positions of prominence in legal academia means that important mentoring schemes to be put into place for female law students. Mentoring relationships are very beneficial, something that Linda Dobbs has testified to in her First 100 Years interview.

In 1919, at the start of the journey of women working in the legal profession, First 100 Years celebrates the milestones of the first women to qualify as lawyers and to work as solicitors in firms. Very happily things have changed, and 100 years later women are firmly embedded in the legal sector. But they are not firmly embedded at the top of the legal sector, whether it be as judges on the high courts, or in professorships at universities. One of the next milestones is therefore to see a greater representation of women at the higher end of the profession, and progress is too slow currently. This article has set out some of the ways to map the uncharted waters, such as Clifford Chance’s initiative of a cv-blind policy. Using quotas to ensure that more women will be working at senior levels in legal academia would be another tool to address the very prominent absence of women at the top.

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