Scales of justice tip in favour of women but more needs to be done

The advancement of women in the legal profession still needs further support

From left: Finola Flanagan, full-time commissioner of the Law Reform Commission, Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus, Justice Mary Laffoy and Senator Ivana Bacik at the recent Student Legal Convention in UCD. Photograph:  Orla Murray/Ark Photography

From left: Finola Flanagan, full-time commissioner of the Law Reform Commission, Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus, Justice Mary Laffoy and Senator Ivana Bacik at the recent Student Legal Convention in UCD. Photograph: Orla Murray/Ark Photography

 

In a first for any legal profession in the world, women Irish solicitors now outnumber men practising in Ireland.

Figures for the end of 2014 show there are 4,623 women practising as solicitors and 4,609 men practising as solicitors.

Women currently dominate the State’s senior appointments in law and justice. Last year saw the appointment of the first female Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, and the third female Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald. They join a long list of others: Chief Justice Susan Denham, Attorney General Máire Whelan, Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus, Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon and President of the District Court Rosemary Horgan.

Yet while it appears the law scales have tipped in favour of women, the sticky floor rather than the glass ceiling is one of the biggest barriers facing women progressing in the legal profession, a recent legal convention heard.

At a debate on Women in Law: Equality in the Legal Profession, attendees heard that while there had been a dramatic increase in the number of women in senior positions in the legal profession in Ireland, more could be done to support the advancement of women by promoting a culture of equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion.

Almost 200 law students from universities across Ireland gathered in UCD earlier this month for the second annual UCD Student Legal Convention, a student-led initiative supported by corporate law firm A&L Goodbody and the UCD Student Legal Service. Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said she greeted the figures with a “cautious welcome” but said women still faced barriers when trying to move up the ladder.

“The sticky floor is where women tend to be stuck at the lower levels. It’s not so much that there’s any actual bar on going up, it’s more that there are lots of reasons why women don’t take the next step up. There’s been lots of talk about leaning in and taking on more responsibility, but that’s difficult if you have lots of responsibilities at home for instance,” said Bacik.

A 2003 study, Gender Injustice in the Law, found female solicitors cited problems such as an “old boys” culture coupled with long hours and a lack of family-friendly practices.

“The problem we found, particularly in small solicitors’ firms, is an inbound gender bias in a system that relies on informal contacts, golf outings and so on. That’s where men have traditionally done better. Women weren’t getting the breaks because men were seen as having more social capital,” said Bacik.

She said the Irish Women Lawyers Association, set up in 2002, as well as changes in solicitors’ firms on maternity pay and more women role models in the profession, had helped the situation.

Positive outlook

Loftus said merit-based promotion, which offers a more transparent appointment process, was introduced 15 years ago in the DPP’s office and had led to more women being promoted.

Finola Flanagan, full-time Commissioner of the Law Reform Commission and the first woman lawyer recruited to the Attorney General’s office in 1985, said the legal profession had been “gender blind for a long time”.

“The big question when I started wasn’t if a female could cope with the rigours of the job but how they address the envelope to me. Would it be Ms or Miss or Mrs because I was married but didn’t go by my husband’s surname?” she said.

The panellists at the convention said that while they supported gender quotas in politics, they did not support a quota system in the legal profession.

Bacik said studies had shown that when merit-based criteria were applied, women performed as well, if not better than men in the interview process.

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy said she was called to the Bar in 1970 when there were just 70 women practising as solicitors in the State. She said the picture would improve for women but it would take time as women’s careers began to take off at around the same time they decided to start a family.

Flanagan said she never noticed any difference in the levels of ambition between men and women.

“The problem is having children,” she said.“You need to invest in your career over your total working life. Before you set up home and have children, women and men need to sit down and work out how they are going to share childcare and I’d say it doesn’t happen enough. People drift into habits and then one person earns more, or it’s more convenient for one person to stay at home and then one person’s ambition lags behind the other’s. That conversation should be had at an early stage.”

With more women than ever in the legal profession, the panellists said the issue of childcare needed to be addressed and they were all in favour of tax relief for childcare.

OECD figures show an average family of two here spends 40 per cent of the average wage on childcare costs. For a two-child family that amounts to almost €16,000 a year.

Bacik said she recently asked if judges were entitled to statutory parental and maternity leave and was told by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald that it would be “granted as it arises”. “One-third of the judiciary are now women – this is a chilling factor which will put women off applying for judicial appointments,” Bacik said.

Equality

Flanagan advised women starting out in the legal profession to get on to governing bodies such as the Law Society of Ireland or Bar Council of Ireland “to ensure necessary equality prevails for women”.

DPP Claire Loftus said there needed to be a shift in the culture of “presenteeism” and how women viewed the way they worked.

“More than half of our lawyers are female so we deal with this issue all the time. We have senior female lawyers who work a four-day week and as head of the office, there’s no downside from my point of view. They are incredibly committed, and the work doesn’t suffer,” said Loftus.

“I know of women who have families, dealing with some of the biggest trials in the history of the State who were able to juggle and manage.

“You can accommodate people’s requirement to work less or be in the office less because it’s important to invest in people. They will be back from any break and come back better than ever.” Milestones: Women in the law 1921 Frances Kyle and Averil Deverell – first female barristers

1923 Mary Heron – first solicitor

1925 Frances Moran – first law professor

1963 Eileen Kennedy – first judge

1980 Mella Carroll – first High Court judge

1993 Susan Denham – first Supreme Court judge; Máire Geoghegan-Quinn – first Minister for Justice

2011 Susan Denham first Chief Justice; Máire Whelan first Attorney General; Claire Loftus first Director of Public Prosecutions 2014 Nóirín O’Sullivan, first Garda Commissioner

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