International Women's Day - The Lawyer's Tale

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

This post was originally published on Any Other Woman as part of "In Her Own Words: In Celebration of International Women's Day 2011", a series created to share and celebrate the experiences of women from many walks of life. All day on 8 March 2011, Any Other Woman and One Cat Per Person featured posts written by a collective of intelligent, passionate and opinionated women bloggers from the United States and the United Kingdom. And, er, me.

Before I start, let me tell you a little story. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I'll begin.

A French Fancy wobbles dangerously on my palm as I attempt to peel off its paper case using the fingers of only one hand. My other hand is struggling to find a way of holding the paper-thin floral teacup that won't result in third-degree burns. The tea itself is extra strong, to counteract the soporific combination of the gas fire pummelling me with heat from across the living room and the rambling conversation being conducted by my granny and Jimmy (her neighbour and, I am beginning to suspect, erstwhile suitor). I have just popped in to say hello. I am beginning to regret it.

Having comprehensively discussed their respective ailments, the state of the garden, and the list of mutual acquaintances who have recently shuffled off this mortal coil, they turn inevitably to the Grandchildren Olympics. Jimmy seems impressed when he hears my brother is in a band. He asks whether they have a record. "No, wait, that's not what they call it these days, is it? Do they have one of those - what is it? A tape, do they have a tape?" (it's 2007).

Bless him, I think, as I finally liberate the French Fancy from its paper and cram it triumphantly down my throat. Naturally, Jimmy chooses this exact moment to ask what I am doing with myself these days.

"I'm *nom nom* excuse me *swallow* I'm actually training to be a lawyer."

Jimmy's whiskery white eyebrows shoot up towards his bald, freckled scalp. His face stretches into an expression of incredulity and sheer disbelief.

"A lawyer?!?"
(By way of background, I am 23 at this point. And blonde. And, significantly, of the female persuasion. He is in his 80s, most definitely male and what can only be described as "old school". I can see that he is unsure whether I am being serious.)

I feel, inexplicably, the need to downplay it, to justify his response. "Well, I'm not qualified yet, I've really only just started," I splutter. "And, I mean, who knows if I'll enjoy it? I probably won't do it forever, I can always do something different, you know, if I don't like it."

His face relaxes back into its soft, leathery folds and he nods, sagely. Order has been restored.

"Yes, yes, you could always do something different," he muses. "Like flower arranging?"

Now, it's easy to dismiss this as the ramblings of a daft old man. Irrelevant, outdated, unimportant. And, in truth, there are probably few people below the age of 80 who would laugh at the idea of a woman being a lawyer in the UK these days. No, sexism today is far more sly than that.

When my mother went to university in the late 60s (the first in her family to do so), out of two hundred first-year law students she was one of only a dozen or so women. Intimidated, she gave up law after a year to pursue a much more ladylike arts degree. Her friend, who my mum describes as one of the cleverest people she has ever had the privilege to know, persevered and achieved a first-class law degree. Shortly after graduation she married a fellow law student. He became a judge; she became a housewife.

In contrast, when I graduated from my law degree in 2005, the graduation ceremony was dominated by bright young women; long hair flowing over black-robed shoulders, stiletto heels clicking across ancient floors. In seminars and lectures, the ratio of women to men was around 4 to 1. There was an overwhleming impression that things were finally changing; the traditionally male-dominated legal profession was being cracked wide open (of course, the profile of your average law student is still overwhelmingly white and middle-class, but that's a rant story for another day).

And yet. In my experience, the intake of trainee lawyers in many legal firms is still 50:50 women to men. The ratio among senior lawyers is far worse, and change, if it is happening at all, is happening at a glacial pace.

Even if we forget the numbers - if we put these persistent imbalances down to women preferring other professions or areas of law that are perceived to be less "macho", taking maternity leave, choosing to work part-time - even if we swallow these tired old arguments, there is still the question of perception and attitude.

Some examples. A (female) friend being told by a (male) partner, in a formal appraisal, that she had "lost her sparkle". A client complimenting a male partner, after successful completion of a transaction, on building "a team of gorgeous women" (er, how is that relevant?). The list goes on, but, you know, I don't really want to get sacked, so I'll stop there

Obviously, the point I am trying to make here isn't one of lawyering versus floristry. Florists kick ass. I have even dabbled in a bit of flower arranging myself: it was my Saturday job at school and, more recently, I put together all the table arrangements for our wedding. In a way, Jimmy was spot on - I suspect that spending your days creating something beautiful would be significantly more fulfilling and worthwhile than advising companies on how to exploit the law for a living.

It's an issue of choice. Women should have the right to choose any profession they wish, be it florist or lawyer, nurse or engineer. Once in their chosen profession, they should be evaluated and judged on their performance alone. It's easy to imagine that sexism in supposedly forward-thinking countries like ours is obsolete, but the figures tell a different tale.

Having said all that, I am lucky enough to live in a country where access to higher education and employment is ostensibly open to everyone, equally. At this very moment, millions of women across the world are living under violent regimes that are ideologically opposed to women entering the workplace at all, or they are struggling to survive in conditions of heartbreaking poverty where being told they've lost their sparkle is frankly the least of their worries.

Today, on International Women's Day, I will be reflecting not on how far we in the UK still have to go, but on how far we have come. Instead of worrying about the hurdles that I may face as a woman in a traditionally masculine profession, I will think about my sisters around the globe who tackle, with grace and strength of character, unimaginable hurdles every day just to survive.

I might even buy myself some flowers, something cheery and colourful. Every time they catch my eye, I will think of those women, and I will remind myself to be grateful.

But tomorrow, the fight will go on.

Images: 1. Via Oxfam Unwrapped 2. Lillian and Leonard 3/4. Family and friends 5. Via Oxfam Unwrapped

3 boats moored

  1. Yay to any other wedding for introducing me to another funny woman blogger whose blog i can blurk around (brilliant word btw!) i loved this post and did say so on aow's site- you are a natural storyteller. thanks for the comment on my illustration. Unfortunately i needed lots of people to vote for it to get it to the top 5 when 3 important people then judged it- i just didnt know enough people so only got to 6th place! Hey ho!

  2. Oh and that piece on being boring by wendy cope could've been written for me! It is perfect-yay to being boring!

  3. Aw thank you so much!

    Can't believe you got to number 6 - sooo close, how annoying.

    And yes - being boring is highly underestimated ;)