Women in Law. Changing Times

September 10, 2019

academic law, Women in Law


“The presence of three remarkable, though very different, women had a major impact on women students. They provided role models demonstrating that we could be as good, indeed better than the ‘boys.’”

Margot Brazier is Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester.

In autumn 1968, I first entered the portals of the Faculty of Law at the University of Manchester, a nervous seventeen year old. Law and law schools were very different. The legal position of women in 1968 is hard to credit. In that year, not so long ago, had I been injured in some way or lured from my family by a ‘villain’, my father could have sued for the loss of my services. Were he still with us, he would ask what services. He made me cups of tea not vice versa. In 1970, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act abolished actions for loss of a daughter’s services. Not until the Administration of Justice Act 1982 was a husband’s right to sue for loss of his wife’s services struck out of the statute book.

There was one woman High Court judge, Mrs Justice Elizabeth Lane, appointed in 1965. I had graduated and married before another woman was appointed to the High Court in 1974. Mrs Justice Rose Heilbron was one of the most formidable criminal law barristers yet she was appointed to the Family Division. In 1968, there were no female law professors in the United Kingdom. Claire Palley became the first woman in the UK to be appointed to a Chair in Law in 1970 at Queen’s University Belfast, followed in 1975 by Gillian White at Manchester. In my year at Manchester about 10% of the class were women. Many had been discouraged from applying to do law. ‘Not a job for little girls’ one ‘well meaning’ family friend told me. Happily my parents did not share that view.

Gazing at the horde of young men gathering in the lecture theatre to be greeted by the Dean, I felt daunted. I was soon to learn that Manchester was unusual in its favourable gender balance in 1968. Many Law Faculties had fewer than 10% women undergraduates. Many had only one female academic; some had none. Manchester had three; Diana Kloss whose battle to combine family and an academic career cleared the way for other women to follow suit; Gillian White, later Professor of International Law, and Brenda Hale, future President of the Supreme Court. The presence of three remarkable, though very different, women had a major impact on women students. They provided role models demonstrating that we could be as good, indeed better than the ‘boys.’ They offered unstinting, constructive support to those who floundered at times; support which continued when I metamorphosed from student to Lecturer in Law in 1971.

Much has changed. At Manchester there are roughly equal numbers of women and men undergraduates. About 40% of the academic staff are female; a lower percentage hold Chairs. Not only is the President of the Supreme Court a woman, so are two other of the Justices. Highly talented women are succeeding in practice and academia. I rejoice at changes for the better. In discussions with younger colleagues at the University and women in practice in Manchester, I am reminded that there is far to go. Some senior women do not help, saying ‘I have never faced discrimination at work.’ At entry level in practice or academia, sex discrimination is rare; our young women often do better than the men. The spectre of unequal treatment often materialises in the labour ward. Returning to work balancing the demands of practice or academia with parenthood is tough. I hope fewer lawyers would now openly declare that a mother pursuing a full-time career is either a weak link at work or a bad mother. The remark made by a fellow barrister to a former Manchester student about to be married illustrates that overt prejudice is far from dead. She was told; ‘It won’t be long before you are a kept woman and you won’t need to do this.[1]

I was fortunate that long before equality at work legislation, Manchester offered a degree of flexibility that fitted well with juggling parenting, teaching and research. Teaching hours were within reasonable limits adjusted to make room for child-care. In a supportive workplace colleagues (women and men) rallied round in emergencies of family life knowing that the beneficiary of such support would reciprocate without demanding formal adjustment of a work allocation model (WAM).

Flexibility did not offer a free pass from meeting the obligations of the job. As research and publication became required of the law lecturer, family life did not excuse failure to research and publish. A significant advantage of academia over practice was that you could make choices about when and where you worked on research. The absence of the constant cycle of the Research Excellence Framework and its ilk, made it easier to recognise that return from maternity leave did not signal that the person could now ‘catch up’ and produce 4* papers straightaway.

Over the years I have been a legal academic, the balance between teaching and research has swung from one extreme to another. Many women of my generation focused more on teaching, not so much in terms of actual classroom hours as in taking responsibility for degree programmes and pastoral care. Many women still do; not always because they choose to do so. Some jobs are deemed to be ‘better’ done by women, yet lack the kudos of being say Director of Research. Even when teaching is supposed to be in the ascendancy, few academics win promotion to a Chair on the basis of contributions to student education rather than research. What may seem like minor niggles also make a difference. Expectations that staff should gain international recognition are somehow translated into expectations they will attend international conferences regularly. University rules bar children from the premises. I once conducted student interviews with my three year old daughter drawing in the corner.

Women academics in 2019 who seek to be mothers and scholars may be spared some of the overt manifestations of discrimination. They may find that practically, notwithstanding employment legislation, the combination of the two is no easier than decades ago. The advent of intrusive central management in universities and the increase in the size of law schools render the kind of informal ‘family’ environment from which I benefited impossible. Nor is it desirable for ‘equality’ of treatment to depend on goodwill alone. A change in leadership can change the environment overnight. Employment rights and formal policies are needed. In an ideal world such policies should do more than enforce the letter of the law and nurture a mutually supportive environment, making the law school a place where all of us will be happy to go to work.

[1] https://www.legalcheek.com/2019/08/it-wont-be-long-until-youre-a-kept-woman-soon-to-be-married-female-barrister-goes-public-with-male-opponents-sexist-remark/


Margot Brazier is Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester.



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