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

The judiciary was once a male-only bastion. Times have thankfully changed and with that, the female presence in the Scottish (and indeed U.K. judiciary) has markedly increased. Obelisk consultant Nicola Evans explores the history and progress of women in the judiciary.

In times gone by, access to the legal profession was governed by three factors: Gender, social class and wealth.

In Scotland, 1901, Miss Margaret Howie Strang Hall petitioned the court asking to be admitted as a member of the then-termed Incorporated Society of Law Agents. The courts refused, referring to the Romans refusal of allowing women to act at prosecutors. It was not until 20 years later that Miss Madge Easton Anderson became the first woman solicitor in Scotland and a further two years until Miss Margaret Kidd became the first woman advocate. Incredibly, Miss Kidd remained the only female advocate until 1948.

Judge Selection Process | Overdue Overhauls

Both England and Scotland have, relatively recently, had a considerable overhaul of the selection process for judges. Judicial selection is now much more transparent. In Scotland, the Judicial Appointments Board was introduced in 2002 and as its website states it was designed ‘to bring transparency to the selection process and to build a system in which the public, the profession and the politicians can have trust and confidence.’
In England, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established the Judicial Appointments Commission, which is now responsible for appointing judges. The 2005 Act specifically states that appointments must be made solely on merit.

However, the U.K. still has one of the lowest proportions of female judges on its benches, according to a report by the Council of Europe. If we take a closer look, we see the Scottish legal system continues to struggle with equality in terms of appointments. As of 2016, there were only 125 women working as advocates (who represent clients in the higher courts) out of 462 people who are members of the Faculty of Advocates.

Of Scotland’s 113 QCs, only 21 are female. Further, of the 31 judges in post only nine are female. Europe-wide, systems with the lowest percentage of women among professional judges were Azerbaijan (11%), Armenia (23%), Northern Ireland (23%), Scotland (23%), England & Wales (30%) and Ireland (33%), with an overall average of 51% in Europe.

Female Judiciary Role Models

There are several inspirational women of note in the judiciary. In England, Lady Hale was appointed Deputy President of The Supreme Court in June 2013. In January 2004, Lady Hale became the United Kingdom’s first woman Lord of Appeal in Ordinary after a varied career as an academic lawyer, law reformer, and judge. In October 2009 she became the first (and remains the only) woman Justice of The Supreme Court. As such, Lady Hale is the most senior female judge in the United Kingdom.

Lady Dorrian QC was appointed to Scotland’s second highest judicial post as Lord Justice Clerk in 2016. This appointment made Scottish judicial history as no woman has served at this level prior to this. Lady Dorrian, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen, was admitted to Faculty of Advocates in 1981 and served as Advocate Depute – the first woman to hold the position – between 1988 and 1991, and became a QC in 1994.

Lady Hale is a regular speaker about issues such as feminism, equality and human rights – and has notably been happy to be open about the ‘imposter syndrome’ that she has experienced. This characteristic affects more women than men and is the feeling that despite academic and professional success the person will be found out to be a fraud. Many studies have looked at this and found it to be a natural symptom of gaining expertise.

Success for Women in the Judiciary

Lady Dorrian has referred to only a modest amount of sexism in own her career – and that was largely in the sense that it was simply less familiar to have women appearing in court and conducting cases. She does not attribute her success to having a particularly pioneering attitude, but simply to working hard and taking opportunities that seemed sensible.

It is interesting to note that both Lady Hale and Lady Dorrian almost seem to downplay their respective success in the profession: a characteristic that people who ascend very hierarchical institutions often exhibit. Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead looks at this tendency and unsurprisingly, many of the case studies are female.

Family-Friendliness | the Bar vs Private Practice

Although not necessarily an easy option, the Bar has been considered a more ‘family friendly’ career option than private practice. Roisin Higgins QC, commented in the Scotsman newspaper that far from being a hostile environment to female advocates, there is the suggestion that for women hoping to combine a legal career with family, advocacy might offer the most family friendly path.

Remaining Challenges for Women in the Judiciary

Lady Dorrian has pointed out the real ‘challenges’ facing the future of the profession in relation to its composition, access to it and progression within it. In a recent conference, ‘Equality means Business’ in Edinburgh in May 2017, Lady Dorrian highlighted that the legal profession as a whole should be representative of the society which it serves. Without this diversity, the profession runs the risk of not being able to offer access to justice for a wide range of practice areas (often the poorly funded areas) or for a wide client base. To be respected, the legal profession has to reflect the society it represents.

Accordingly the benefits of putting equality and diversity as the focus of the profession, she points out, isn’t just about doing the right thing but is enshrined in legislation, putting duties of equality on the shoulders of employers and public authorities.

The profession should take heed and retain talent by constantly seeking to ensure it is nurtured in the correct way.

Nicola Evans has a background in commercial law having worked  in-house for an international company and also having lectured in law. Nicola works as a Consultant for Obelisk Support, specialising in commercial law and providing remote, flexible services.