Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Women in Law

Times have changed since 1959 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to endure a particularly cringy professional interview. After admitting she’d been rejected by 12 law firms, she lists some of the rejection reasons to her interviewer. “Last week I was told women are too emotional to be lawyers. One interviewer told me I have a sterling resume, but they hired a woman last year, and what in the world would they want with two of us?”

Stunned at first, the whole audience burst out laughing at the preview of On the Basis of Sex in Soho, London last week. Yes, people really discriminated a female lawyer because she’d be ‘too busy at bake sales to be effective’ and that’s only one of the obstacles that The Notorious R.B.G. had to surmount to eventually become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

WARNING: Spoilers.

Sexism in the Legal Profession

Not a major spoiler here: things did not change quickly for women in law in the 20th century. They did not change at all for an excruciatingly long time, and On the Basis of Sex is a perfect illustration of that slow progress on screen. It’s almost painful to watch such a bright mind as RBG be put down, rejected, humiliated, and undervalued time and time again – when she’s clearly a legal rock star.

Fortunately for all of us, she isn’t known as The Notorious R.B.G. for nothing. This biopic recounts her early days at Harvard up to an early case in her career. This case changed not only her whole life but the lives of all women in the United States. Throughout the movie, we see Bader Ginsburg subjected to blatant – and at the time, legal – sexism in the legal profession.

Though we would like to think that we’re past such discrimination, Things Women in Law are Sick of Hearing makes for a fascinating read and a quick modern reality check. Discrimination on the basis of gender, whether conscious or not, is still alive and kicking in the legal profession but some heroes like RBG are tackling it every day.

There’s more good news.

Mad Men gone Legal

If Mad Men were about brilliant lawyers, the resulting movie might be On the Basis of Sex. Aside from the plot, the 1960s and 1970s fashion, the global civil rights movement in the United States, the turmoil of society all make perfect backdrops for a groundbreaking case that slowly finds the right circumstances to unfold.

Like Mad Men character Peggy Olson fighting the double standard in the treatment and expectations of men and women, Bader Ginsburg slowly but surely carves a place for women in society with the use of her professional expertise. Unfazed, she keeps forging her path and slowly, manages to gain not just respect but admiration from her peers.

She does not take no for an answer and where others see challenges, she looks at the bright side of life and builds upon her successes to find solutions.

Ethics and the Law to the Rescue

Bader Ginsburg also uses the ethics of the law to her advantage. A sentence picked up early in the movie during her Harvard days gives us a clue that something is up: “A court ought not be affected by the weather of the day. But will be by the climate of the era.”

Also in RBG’s husband, Martin’s words, “how a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.” In essence, the law reflects society, the law guides citizens to conform with societal values but nothing is set in stone. Throughout history, the mark of a civilised society has been society’s ability to refine its laws to reflect the will of the people.

According to economists Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford and Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two possible ways to successfully change norms: dramatic and highly visible efforts to change behaviours spearheaded by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or gradual changes in laws over long periods of time, such as smoking regulations in America.

In the case of On the Basis of Sex, tax laws are the catalyst of change. Though tax statutes don’t make for electrifying bedtime reading, they make for a perfect climax in this movie. You don’t even have to be a tax specialist or a lawyer to understand the arguments of the case, as a 13-year-old in the audience later attested.

Felicity Jones as RBG perfectly articulates her defence of gender equality in plain English and using everyday examples we can all relate to. It’s not the virtuoso high-flying law you see in the TV series Suits – it’s John Adams legal perfection because it’s factual, irrefutable and just. As it should be.

Our Verdict

At Obelisk Support, we are huge advocates of change in the legal profession and supporters of gender equality. We are known as the leaders of diversity in legal services and our CEO is a woman. It’s no surprise that we all loved On the Basis of Sex, though we had initial reservations (as lawyers should). This could have been a boring Hollywood feel-good courtroom drama full of cliches and yes there a few, but instead On the Basis of Sex manages to pull an Erin Brockovich and is an inspirational movie with a kickass female protagonist. What else could we ask for?

We can ask nothing more of the Notorious RBG, obviously. She’s already done so much and despite her health, she is still hard at work as we write. What we can do, however, is make her proud and amplify her actions by channeling our own Notorious R.B.G.s and fighting for gender equality and against all types of discrimination in society.

That would be the perfect ending to a seriously great movie.

Thanks to The Entrepreneurs Network and the Female Founders Forum for organising this preview and celebrating role models and mentors in society.

Women in Law

 Justice belongs to the people. We should open up the justice system, demystify it without undermining the importance of the court. It is there to serve society and to serve you.”

Reminding us what justice is all about, four inspirational superstars of the world justice scene shared how they got to the top of their profession in the first place, what obstacles they overcame and who inspired them along the way. On 5 July 2018, Obelisk Support co-sponsored the first-ever event bringing together female Supreme Court judges from four different continents at Grays Inn in London. The judges were Baroness Hale President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Susan Kiefel Chief Justice of Australia, Georgina Wood former Chief Justice of Ghana, and Beverley McLachlin former Chief Justice of Canada. They were joined on stage before and after the discussion by Dame Linda Dobbs former high court judge, Professor Penny Andrews Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town, Genevieve Muinzer founder of Ad Astra Communications and Vice-Chair of the Foundation for International Law, and Dana Denis-Smith founder of The First 100 Years Project and CEO of Obelisk Support.

What prompted you to enter the professions?

Georgina Wood said that if she had been asked at age 12 what profession she would like to enter, she would have said medical doctor. At home, she never had my parents say that it’s only women who can do such or such professions. Her father and brother helped her to find a way around in her career and she has now been a magistrate of judiciary in Ghana for 42 years, crediting this to the fact that she just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

For Susan Kiefel growing up in Australia, the situation was quite different. Young girls doing higher education had two options: teaching and nursing. Neither interested her and as she started her professional career as a PA, she worked for a group of barristers and watched their work closely. She was quite attracted to the camaraderie and decided that she would be one of them. Studying law at night, she went to the bar, inspired by true trailblazers in Australia such as Roma Mitchell and Joan Rosenove in the 1950s. In Queensland, there had only been one woman who followed in their footsteps and now, women represent 25% of the bar in Australia. She suspected being a judge was more intellectually rewarding than being a barrister or QC.

Beverley McLachlin grew up wanting to be independent and to do something different. In high school in grade 7, she was told she had a very high reading retention score but that she couldn’t do anything with that. After reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she was told “it’s a man’s world and you can’t make it.” However, a good friend said, ‘I think you would be really good at law’. So she wrote to the dean to ask for info and he wrote back, and admitted her to law school.

Baroness Hale’s headmistress told her that she wasn’t clever enough to study history and suggested economics instead. Though Baroness Hale wasn’t too keen on the idea, she was fascinated by constitutional history. Later, she was the first girl from a small Yorkshire school to go to Cambridge to read law. She met all these men who had great ambitions and thought she would as well. She did self-tuition correspondence course to become a barrister, studied two months and came top of the list. At that point, she had to choose between university and bar and chose the former. After a series of public appointments, she got a phone call saying ‘we’re thinking of diversifying the judiciary.’ By that, they didn’t mean women or minorities. They meant academics. Like baby judges. Was this something she would like to do? Of course it was. It was a full time judicial post and looking back, it never occurred to her that she would be any sort of judge.

Tell us about the most challenging time of your careers?

When Susan Kiefel started at the bar there was a custom of barristers paying visits to judges. There was only one that almost stopped her but she went anyway. In the 1980s, people smoked then and she was judge of a tense case with livestock auctioneers in their ranching garb. She asked if anyone smoked and if nobody minded. She then took a pack of loose leaf tobacco from her drawer and proceeded to roll her cigarette. There was a sigh of relief in the room.

Baroness Hale will never forget the terror of a bail abdication case when she was a barrister. The judge behaved disgracefully and tore petitions to shreds. She really felt sorry for the clients. The same judge offered her a cup of tea later and didn’t apologise. Judges behaving badly doesn’t go on nowadays like it did back then. It was challenging going to the law commission. Every bit of judging is difficult when you do it. 

After having graduated from law school, Beverley McLachlin went for interview for articles. She had a lovely interview with a gentleman she greatly admired. He said, ‘why do you want to practice law?’ Why was he asking me this? she thought; she had been studying for 7 years. The expectation was that if you were married, you could not practice law. You devoted your life to your husband and your family. She went anyway and got the job but almost thought she couldn’t. When you think you can’t get through, think again. You may be underestimating yourself. You just plough on. When she had a child, it was extremely stressful. Not because she thought she couldn’t do her job, but because she thought she was the worst parent in the world. Her son later said, ‘get over it Mom, you were great’. To be a good mother, you have to be a strong person and show unconditional love. Her advice to younger women is keep your head up.

Georgina Wood started by reminding the audience that Ghana had had a tortuous past and 25 years ago, and has since voted constitutional democracy and enjoyed a period of peace. It’s rewarding to know that the judiciary has contributed to that peace. Although she supports women’s rights, she judges according to the law and the facts. When men come to her, they know they will get justice without gender bias. In one case, a woman died and her family rushed to the court thinking they would not get justice. As Court Justice in a developing country, when you make up your mind that you are going to protect the independence of the judiciary it is very rewarding. Unfortunately, there was some corruption but her judicial council was very independent and the other judges were removed. Having to deal with lack of resources can be challenging but if you do the best that you can given the circumstances, your work and your integrity will always work for you.

How have experiences in life influenced your judgment?

Beverley McLachlin grew up in a very diverse community with indigenous people, people of different European backgrounds, and they gave her an appreciation for the place of everybody in the world. Her parents believed that everybody should be treated equally and it has infused into her whole thinking.

To Baroness Hale, women do lead different lives from men. Women don’t do it by choice. People react differently to them. Women are often regarded as other. One does grow up with an appreciation that you are on your own. Women should not try to conform to male models to succeed in the law. She was the only one in her court who had spent all her professional life as employed — as opposed to self-employed. Most professional women have experienced humiliation, such as being turned down for a job when they’re the best qualified person for the job. All these experiences feed into how you judge and it is as it should be. Judges shouldn’t be only successful.

As a judge, Georgina Wood tried to add human experiences into her cases. There are some values that you learn early in life in school that shape one’s mind around what is right and what is wrong. One of them is equality and the law.

Susan Kiefer was brought up with Christian values. She has been working since she was 15. People and events shape her way of thinking. As a barrister, she was very interested in how different judges write and admired simplicity and conciseness.

What would you like your legacy to the law to be?

Susan Kiefer would like to be remembered for someone who promoted a style of judgement that made it easier for people to understand judgments and for judges to apply the law. That means, hopefully, fewer judgments. Putting vanity aside, she recommends an institutional approach rather than an individual approach.

Though legacies don’t last very long, Baroness Hale would like to be remembered as a judge in front of whom it is pleasant to appear, a judge with a lightness of touch. She would also like to be remembered for a handful of judgments that have made people think differently about the law.

Berveley McLachlin has been privileged to sit in a number of cases that have made people’s lives better in Canada. She is proud of those judgments, protecting human rights such as LGBT rights. She has tried to advocate that justice belongs to the people and would like to open up the justice system, demystify it without undermining the importance of the court. It is there to serve society and to serve you. She’d like to be remembered for better access to justice.

The people of Ghana would be the best judges of Georgina Wood’s legacy. She is a judge of integrity, some of her cases have impacted students. She wants to be remembered as someone who put integrity, hard work and merit above who you knew or the old boys’ circles. She wants to be remembered as someone who championed young women and children. We are not in competition with the men. We encourage girl porters to aspire to better lives.

Who inspired you?

When Beverley McLachlin was little, there were few women who became lawyers and did something of their career. There were very few role models. Women were not considered persons. In 1929, the Persons’ Case was issued by the judicial committee. Times are changing. The law had to change with society. My role model was these women who fought so long so hard to reach the Persons’ Case.

Baroness Hale was inspired by her own mother. She didn’t think so at the time. When she was 13, her father died. There was a marriage bar for teaching in the 1930s. Her mother dusted off her teaching credentials and became headmistress in their village school. She always wonders: ‘what would mother have said?’