It is difficult to know where to begin to respond to Lord Sumption’s unenlightened comments about gender inequality in the legal profession reported in the Evening Standard on Monday 21 September 2015. There is nothing in his reported comments, however many times you read them, to explain the Supreme Court Office’s attempt at justification: “Some of Lord Sumption’s comments appear to have been misunderstood”. Since they do not suggest that he has at any stage been misquoted, let us consider just one full and direct quote: “The Bar and the solicitors’ profession are incredibly demanding in the hours of work and the working conditions are frankly appalling. There are more women than men who are not prepared to put up with that. As a lifestyle choice, it’s very hard to quarrel with it, but you have to face the consequence which is that the top of the legal profession has fewer women in it than the profession overall does.”
Is Lord Sumption really suggesting that women are unused to long hours and appalling working conditions? We are surprised to hear this from a renowned and respected historian. As for “lifestyle choices”, does he mean having children? If so, does he mean the actual gestation of these children (which unfortunately we can’t outsource to men) or does he mean our insistence on feeding them, looking after them when they are sick, dropping and picking them up from school, taking them to doctors and hospitals and if they are vulnerable or disabled or have special needs, spending hours and hours trying to make their lives better? Is this the “lifestyle choice” we women make? Do men not have children? Why isn’t it a lifestyle choice when they do? These are such age old debates that is quite shocking to us that we should be hearing these words, in the 21st Century, from one of our most senior judges. We are told we must wait another 50 years for equality. Lord Sumption, we know, did not have to wait. He was catapulted from the Bar to the Supreme Court without a full-time judicial post. How did that qualify him to sit in the highest court of our land? And how is he qualified to talk about gender equality or “lifestyle choices” (as pointed out by Dinah Rose QC on Twitter)?
The reality is that until sexism (institutional sexism or otherwise) is acknowledged and addressed by men in our profession, particularly those at the very top, nothing can or will fundamentally change. Worse, the take-home message to those of us who have made many sacrifices to remain in this profession, who have fought against both the ingrained racism and sexism, is not to bother contemplating a judicial career (it is depressing to recall that Lord Sumption is a former member of the Judicial Appointments Commission [JAC]). Lord Sumption fears not that society will be worse off without the input of brilliant women in the highest echelons, but rather that men (poor men) will feel that the “cards are stacked against them” if women are promoted. He does not advocate a change in our male-centred working structure or our “appalling working conditions”, but rather points to it as the system that women must sink or swim in.
Instead of suggesting that he is misunderstood, surely the Supreme Court Office should be distancing itself from his comments? Surely the Supreme Court office owes women in this profession a proper explanation for the offence Lord Sumption has caused? After all the President of the Supreme Court has recently expressed a completely different view to that of Lord Sumption’s , including on the question of positive discrimination. What then is the official position?
And where is the public outcry? Senior men in our profession have remained silent. A few women silks have spoken out (for example, Karon Monaghan QC). But otherwise the silence is deafening.