As a committee member of the Irish Women's Lawyers Association (IWLA) I was
delighted to be asked to write this blog piece for LawCare to mark
International Women’s Day. This year's theme is “balance for better” and I have
taken some time to reflect on how this applies to the practice of law. I do not
believe there is any doubt that balance and diversity with the legal profession
is a good thing for the profession itself and the society it serves. Diversity
of gender, age and background provides a variety of opinions, strategies and
approaches. Balance is better.
In 2019, there are more female than male
solicitors in Ireland, a fact that we ought to be very proud of and is
certainly welcomed. Ms Justice Susan Denham was Chief Justice until 2017. The
Chief State Solicitor, Maria Browne and Director of Public Prosecutions, Claire
Loftus are both female. Discussions about women's representation in the
workplace are often met with a chorus of “but women have all the top jobs.” It
is true that women are now well represented in high level state jobs, but it
took them a while to get there. Ms Justice Susan Dunham was the first female
Chief Justice and Claire Loftus the first female DPP. My concern is that
amongst all of this success, we are missing the imbalance in female
representation at senior level within law firms and the bar.
None of the top 20 commercial law firms in
Ireland currently have female managing partners. Only 16% of senior counsel in
2018 were female. Why? It is certainly not because women are any less competent
than their male counterparts.
I truly believe that the majority of the legal
profession agree that balance is better so the question is how can we achieve
Firstly, we need to challenge subconscious
bias, something we are all guilty of.
We are still stereotyping. We still place women
in a caring role and make assumptions about the balance of caring
responsibilities in the home. This old stereotype is certainly being
challenged, but it has not yet been eradicated and it is not just women who are
harmed by it. As part of our IWD celebrations, IWLA was very privileged to host
a private screening of “On the Basis of Sex” a biopic of the early career of
the remarkable United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The
film depicts a challenge brought by Bader Ginsburg and her husband and
colleagues against a discriminatory tax law that prevented a bachelor from
claiming tax relief for employing a carer for his mother. One of my favourite
quotes from the film is “Our client is a man. We cannot lose sight of that. Men
are also harmed by these stereotypes.” I think this is a point that is being
missed in the conversation about equality in the workplace. Society is changing
and it is time for the legal profession to catch up. Men want to share caring
responsibilities but the current status quo makes this difficult. Perhaps the
starting place for this is to look at our current laws providing for
maternity/paternity leave. The Swedish model of shared leave is to be aspired
to. Affordability of childcare must also be addressed.
We ought to be more aware of our own
subconscious bias in how we work, particularly in how work is delegated within
firms and when briefing counsel. All too often it is presumed that a certain
type of work suits one or other gender. I don't think this is intentional and
as such could be easily remedied if we are aware of subconscious bias and
delegate work more thoughtfully.
Transparency in regards to salary must become
the norm so that the gender pay gap can be challenged. IWLA supports legislative
provisions to encourage this.
In 1919 the balance of the scales began to tip
when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was enacted which allowed women to
become lawyers. In 2019 it is clear that since then the profession has made
great strides towards equality. So much work has been done by both women and
men. Attitudes and practices have certainly changed. We have shown we are
capable of achieving equality. However, there is work yet to be done and the
IWLA are committed to balancing the scales for the betterment of the legal
profession and society.
Aoife McNicholl has been a member of the IWLA committee since 2015 and is a solicitor with Sheehan & Partners.
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