Will women in law be Trumped?
Lawyers debate whether the rise of right-wing politics and Trumpism will set back women in the profession
‘Most qualified woman in the world loses to the least qualified man in the world. In case you were confused about what misogyny looks like.’ Just one of many comments shared on social media about the election of Donald J Trump over former lawyer Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States of America.
Despite accusations of sexual harassment and overt misogyny, white women voters gravitated towards the former Apprentice host, according to exit polling, and helped the bombastic billionaire businessman become the US’s next commander-in-chief.
The success of the controversial TV personality over the experienced Yale Law School graduate, New York senator, and secretary of state was the topic of discussion at the Spark 21 Women in Law conference in London this week, with several panellists debating whether the mood music of a Trump presidency could float across the Atlantic and affect members of the UK legal profession.
Consensus on whether the election of Trump would result in increased examples of sexist behaviour, just as the Brexit vote had led in a reported rise in xenophobia, was split. Past Simmons & Simmons senior partner Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC said that ‘anything can happen in politics’ but there was ‘little chance’ of Trumpism affecting solicitors and barristers due to the UK’s strict equality laws.
However, Outer Temple director Christine Kings, who was previously the chief executive of Doughty Street Chambers, disagreed, saying: ‘We don’t live in isolation. There are US law firms here, and many solicitors and barristers will be working in the US. The politics in this country has moved so far to the right, yet most people haven’t noticed. What is now considered left wing is considered perfectly normal in other countries. I anticipate [the Trump presidency] will have an impact here.’
She went on to suggest that large firms based in the UK may experience a culture shift, with incremental internal changes potential affecting salaries and maternity rights of women. ‘Those in the profession may look at that and see it as just a US thing,’ she added, ‘but I can see there being a continual move to the right, possibly impacting upon civil liberties and employment rights.’
Dr Vanessa Davies, director general of the Bar Standards Board, said ‘laws don’t change attitudes and behaviour’ and cited evidence that ‘casual and everyday sexism’ is still found at the Bar. A BSB survey from July revealed that 40 per cent of female barristers have experienced bullying in the workplace. Davies added that, as a regulator, the BSB would not sweep such behaviour ‘under the carpet’, adding that ‘when you shine accountability lights on things, it contributes to you getting tipping points where people understand that certain behaviours are not acceptable’.
The chairman of the Bar Council, Chantal-AimÃ©e Doerries QC, agreed with Kings that there has been an increasing trend towards populist politics, adding: ‘It is all the more important in modern times to consider the rule of law’ and that lawyers must ‘ensure the cornerstones of society continue to exist and we don’t see a trend towards lack of tolerance so that rights are upheld’.
Also reflecting on the shock election result, aspiring barrister Rhiannon Adams said: ‘As someone who is going into law, I question what it means to be successful. It seems as long as you have a name and a lot of money, you’ll get in.’ The UCL anthropology student, who is also a welfare volunteer at Islington Law Centre and has studied in the US, questioned why someone would vote for Trump over a ‘very qualified’ Clinton, especially after news broke of the businessman’s alleged sexual harassment of women. She also wondered why Trump’s ‘baggage’ was seen as ‘less of a problem’ than Clinton’s, and suggested that sexism may have played a part, as voters forgave the president elect for his various transgressions simply because he was a man.
Speaking on the ‘Women Leaders in Law’ panel about what impact sexism has at the junior end of the profession, Atkin Chambers silk Doerries said that while there was a greater awareness by students of diversity issues, that awareness could become a double-edged sword ‘if it stops people from applying to the law’.
This year’s tagline for the Spark 21 conference – which in 2015 celebrated 100 years of women in law – says ‘the pursuit for equality goes on’, yet with the rise of Trumpism in the US, and shift to right-wing politics in the UK post-Brexit, that pursuit may be slowed for years to come. But for those young women lawyers disheartened by Clinton’s loss, Dame Janet offered the following advice: ‘I know it sounds trite but if you want to be a good lawyer then keep at it, do the work, be politically savvy. If you are in a place that is not looking after you then move. You’ve got to dust yourself down and carry on.’
While students should not be discouraged from a career in law, they would be right to question how a capable member of their profession could lose the presidential race to a man who, if nothing else, bragged on tape about being able to grab women by the genitalia without punishment. Clearly some ‘baggage’, and the person who carries it, weighs heavier on the electorate than others and it is worth women lawyers remembering that that same electorate is made up of potential clients, employers, and colleagues.
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal