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Female Supreme Court judges from around the world share their darkest moments

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Lady Hale and three other female firsts discuss humiliation, corruption accusations and how to overcome self-doubt

Image credit: Twitter (@ydankwa)

Lady Hale and three fellow female Supreme Court justices from across the globe gathered in Gray’s Inn Hall yesterday to discuss the most challenging moments of their lives.

The four trailblazers — all the first women appointed to their respective Supreme Courts — reflected on gender equality in law, the value of role models and what they hope their legacies will be. But the ‘First women of the Supreme Courts in Conversation’ event reached a peak when moderators Professor Penny Andrews and author Genevieve Muinzer asked about the biggest challenges the judges had faced.

Perhaps the darkest story shared came from Beverley McLachlin, a former Chief Justice of Canada. She recalled seeing a newspaper headline as she passed through a hotel lobby on the way to the airport, which said the Prime Minister of Canada had accused her of impropriety. “It was a long flight,” she remembers.

Understandably, philosophy student turned top judge McLachlin described this period as “very, very bad”. But, she continued:

“What was good about it was that the legal institutions and ordinary Canadian men and women were outraged at this attack and I was completely vindicated.”

Fellow panellist Georgina Wood, former Chief Justice of Ghana, was in office in 2015 when a number of her colleagues were accused of taking bribes and extorting money. Wood and her judicial council were adamant this shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, and ex-prosecutor Wood has since been praised for her thorough investigation of the claims. Even so, “it was a very trying moment”, she said at yesterday’s First 100 Years event.

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The UK Supreme Court’s female first, Hale, and Susan Kiefel, a Chief Justice of Australia, had no brushes with corruption accusations to share. That said they’ve faced plenty of challenges in their lives — some perhaps at least partly because of their gender.

Academic turned judge Hale admitted she felt “humiliated” after being rejected from three professorships (despite believing she was the most qualified applicant for at least two of them). Cambridge law graduate Kiefel — who in the 1970s clerked at the law firm that became Norton Rose Fulbright — recalled a conversation with one judge who suggested she should give up her career for her husband and family.

Panellists’ feelings of self-doubt followed them through their legal careers. These may have been perpetuated early — in secondary school, a teacher told McLachlin she had a very good reading score but that “a girl can’t do anything with that”. Kiefel remembers that women seeking professional careers were expected to be nurses or teachers, “both noble professions, but I wasn’t attracted to either”. Hale was told she wasn’t clever enough to study history, so she studied law instead — and is now the president of the Supreme Court.

McLachlin said:

“When you think the bottom’s falling out of your world, think again. You may be underestimating yourself, you may be working against a prejudiced opinion that doesn’t matter. My advice to younger women is to keep your head up, plough on and you’ll get there in the end.”

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35 Comments

Anonymous

“Hale was told she wasn’t clever enough to study history, so she studied law instead — and is now the president of the Supreme Court.”

And sadly, we’re all now saddled with her inferior judgments.

(55)(65)

Anonymous

Well you cared enough to write your inane post

(2)(0)

Anonymous

“Academic turned judge Hale admitted she felt “humiliated” after being rejected from three professorships (despite believing she was the most qualified applicant for at least two of them).”

Oh well, if she BELIEVED she was the best candidate, then case closed I guess.

(55)(22)

Anonymous

Kiefel CJ is not the first woman appointed to the High Court of Australia; that is Mary Gaudron. Kiefel CJ is the first woman appointed as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. She is also not “a” chief justice but “the” chief justice.

That is not, of course, to say that Kiefel CJ is not a trailblazer, but only that the way in which she is/was a trailblazer ought to be properly appreciated.

(37)(1)

Anonymous

The problem is that while meritocracy is the goal, this hyper-obsession with diversity is achieving the complete opposite. If a man doesn’t get a job, it’s seen as tough luck. If a woman doesn’t get a job, it’s somehow society’s fault or the company’s fault because their gender somehow obligates others to give them whatever they want and the SJW mob pander to this. Actual skill is no longer the key criterion for jobs, ticked boxes for diversity checklists are.

Tell a man he’s not qualified for a job and that’s fair. Tell a woman she’s not qualified for a job and you’re sexist.

(58)(28)

Anonymous

No, the problem arises when the woman and the man are both equally qualified for the job and the man gets selected instead of the woman solely due to sexism.

(20)(35)

Anonymous

Is it not also sexism then that women often get selected for jobs ahead of equally qualified men because of this obsession with diversity and having women in every job possible? Why are there diversity schemes targeted at women but not men, especially in law where the number of women outnumbers men in practice? Why is it somehow acceptable to boast about, for example, having mostly women in a board of directors but is taboo to have mostly men?

This is the hard truth that SJWs know but do not want to be disclosed and any attempt to debate this is always shut down by a choir of screeches.

(34)(10)

Anonymous

That doesn’t happen enough though to even be significant. It is more common that women are rejected over men.

(5)(19)

Anonymous

Its actually relatively common (certainly statistically significant) for women to be selected for jobs based on notions of ‘diversity’ instead of merit and for women to be favoured in other areas of the workplace over men based solely on gender. I’ve seen it several times myself. Not to say positions aren’t often given on merit, but a significant proportion of the time merit isn’t the primary factor. There are times where men are given positions instead of women due to sexism too of course, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that the inverse isn’t also commonplace.

(11)(7)

Anonymous

Source that. Because it is not true.

We all benefit from diversity and if there need to be schemes to assist women and BME candidates getting there to ease the balance slightly faster then so be it.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

I thought the whole of the Swedish Cabinet was female.

Also in the public sector women are protected and so enhanced through the Equalities Act.

Never mind source It, it is law.

It seems to me that you earn your living in this field and that you are astroturfing.

(0)(0)

Drive By

I never get bored of someone telling me how a comment made by someone 20 years ago shows how awful and sexist the profession was. I enjoy it when privately educated white women from the home counties with bankers/barristers as parents, tell me how many challenges they faced to get a tc. Funny how the women who actually have it hard are made fun of for the way they speak or the clothes they choose to wear by those same elite women.

(47)(2)

Anonymous

Well said.

Women all over the western world have to deal with differing perceptions of roles/gender biases. However, the UK is especially unique in the way it still (shockingly) grasps on to the class system. This rock has a long way to go still.

(1)(0)

Demos Craticus

Drive by

It’s elitism in the UK’s various economies, a hierarchy of elitism and law is no exception. Rather law is likely as elitist as medicine. Elitism is relative. I watched Royal Wives TV programme. The royal wives were saying the aristocracy (means ‘excellent rule’) were critiquing the royal wives who didn’t know which knives and forks or which spoons. A certain sociologist said people make up their own society’s rules without they’re really being any formal rules.

Elitism is what Freud may have seen as a virtual reality that does not exist except in their own minds (ie form of egotism). It is like that on this Legal Cheek forums. People are just entities in bodies – what I call ‘bodies of hot air.’ Bauman Z. may have called elitism a type of ‘normality’ and Max Weber may have called it a type of rationalism. In any event, elitism does nothing except control, an exclusive club. This is why the law is having an overhaul with the Super Exam instead of Legal Practice Courses for solicitors. The industry needs some diversity instead of the predominantly middle class and above social classes.

The economy is just about keeping people busy whilst telling them they’re free. When you get up in the morning for work, you’re just a drone either a well paid drone or a poorly paid drone. Law graduates ‘manufactured in universities’ to serve the industry. Universities supply the market and create the artificial academic standard and the employer uses that artificial standard to choose those to make them rich. There are different standards for different societies but ultimately it is just a drone society…called democracy.

(6)(6)

Anonymous

Errrr you are bat shit! Quite widely read I accept but bat shit none the less

(6)(7)

Anonymous

Demos Craticus…I thought we agreed you were going to leave your chemistry set alone this weekend…

(9)(1)

Demos Craticus

I’m just messing with ya! Chill out, drink some bad ass juice and go find some hunnies to hang with you cheap was bitxch!

(2)(2)

Diversity

If the bar consisted of 70% women of any colour so long as they had all been to Rodean and Oxford it would be a far far better place than it is now. Drive By is wrong.

(4)(8)

Drive By

I appreciate some of these good old boys can be a nightmare (particularly on the sexual assault front with pupils and junior bazzas both male and female). But honestly, Roedean, JAGS, St Pauls Girls, Badminton etc. produce the same sort of person. Only difference is women are generally more socially aware so they can actually mask their disdain for you a lot better.

(11)(0)

Diversity

Yes but it keeps social standards up whilst at the same time ticking the diversity box

Win-win

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Would be good to see some talks encouraging more men to study law.

(13)(3)

Anonymous

That Judge from Ghana was lucky I wasn’t in the audience….

I would have put my invisible tin hat on and lit an invisible firework then waited…

So, your Ladyship, what was your finding in respect of the bribery and corruption in comparison to the allegations made by the two year under cover investigation ?

The reference to the scandal on Wikipedia does not include the results of the investigations.

(Was the likelihood of you making a finding like that why you got the job , do you think, just like our male Lord Denning ? Would have been in my back pocket to use with discretion)

(6)(0)

Anonymous

McLachlin was the first female chief justice of Canada, but there were two other trailblazers that joined the SCC bench before she did: Bertha Wilson (the original Canadian female Supreme Court Justice), and Claire L’Heureux-Dube.

(2)(1)

Demos Craticus

It doesn’t seem right these women should have a platform like this to try to further male subordination. Women have every right to work but ultimately men formed the current global order and are needed. Work for a man is a job not a hobby as it so often is for women!

(23)(16)

Anonymous

Dude, wtf is wrong with you? In what world do women work for a hobby?

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Not one of them had an abortion? Their lives must be pretty rosy

(1)(2)

Anonymous

Come for the inspirational career stories, stay for the whiney meninist comments.

(9)(7)

1950s

Love you toots!

(3)(3)

Anonymous

I don’t know what a ‘meninist’ is (or even if such a thing exists), but while some may have found the anecdotes ‘inspirational’, which is good, not everyone does. But some of these comments raise valid points about gender discrimination potentially or actually faced by men. Victim-blaming the people who raise them helps nobody.

(5)(3)

Anonymous

Men. Obsessed with the semi!!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Us women are not so easily pleased.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

28 years since we had a semi. You women should be thankful for that: unlikely we’ll finish the job.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I thought KK had left LC?

Nice to still see your byline Katie.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Looks like a single sex panel on the platform. I’m triggered.

(3)(3)

Anonymous

I absolutely love how this article drags out the fact McLachlin is a Philosophy grad. Such a British understanding of her education. Whilst it’s true she studied the subject at both an undergraduate and postgraduate level, it is completely irrelevant once she completed her LLB (since been renamed at her alma mater as a JD to match the majority of North America).

From my (limited) experience lawyers in Canada do not appear to care what law students do for an undergrad, only that they performed well enough to be accepted into the very limited 3-year law programmes around Canada. Once accepted onto a JD, or in the case of McGill, the BCL LLB to acknowledge civil code qualification, those letters will be their only defining designation once they enter the profession. A much more civilised system than ours.

(1)(0)

Comments are closed.

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