It’s Complicated

Last week’s comment by English Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption that it may take another 50 years to achieve a gender-balanced roster of judges in England brought the issue of gender equality to the front pages. Not content to raise a minor storm, Lord Sumption went on to urge patience:

We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them. If we do that we will find that male candidates don’t apply in the right numbers. 85 per cent of newly appointed judges in France are women because the men stay away. 85 per cent women is just as bad as 85 per cent men.

He pointed to lifestyle choices as the cause for the ongoing imbalance:

The Bar and the solicitors’ profession are incredibly demanding in the hours of work and the working conditions are frankly appalling. There are more women than men who are not prepared to put up with that. As a lifestyle choice, it’s very hard to quarrel with it, but you have to face the consequence which is that the top of the legal profession has fewer women in it than the profession overall does.

The article in the Evening Standard goes on to note that:

“Some critics have claimed that traditional “old boys’ networks” are part of the reason for restricting female progress in the Bar and on the bench. Lord Sumption said, however, that while he obtained his pupillage in the 1970s via a friend of his father, such claims were now “rubbish in both cases”.”

There was as you might expect something of an uproar in response. This piece from The Lawyer took a more measured tone, addressing with hard data, the fallacies and misconceptions contained in Lord Sumption’s argument. The author, Dr. Steven Vaughan concludes:

As such, the evidence suggests that women do not advance in the profession for multiple, complex, interlocking reasons and because of many and varied formal and informal barriers. “Lifestyle choice”, if it is relevant at all (and if it can be called a ‘choice’), is but one tiny part of what is going on.

It is truly complicated but that’s no excuse for inaction.

Today, a new report, Women in the Workplace 2015, was released in the U.S. by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. This study of 118 workplaces and in excess of 30,000 employees is a follow-up to a similar study conducted by McKinsey in 2012.

The key findings should come as no great surprise but remind us that these aren’t issues that matter only to the legal profession:

  1. Women are underrepresented at every level.
  2. Women are not leaving organizations at higher rates than men.
  3. There are signs that women are less likely to advance than men.
  4. Women face obstacles on the path to senior leadership.
  5. The leadership ambition gap persists.
  6. Women experience an uneven playing field.
  7. Gender diversity is not widely believed to be a priority.
  8. Employee programs are abundant, but participation is low.
  9. There is still inequality at home.
  10. Women and men have very different networks.

The Women in the Workplace report concludes with a roadmap to gender equality in the workplace, acknowledging there is no single path but proposing key steps to move in that direction.

I highly recommend taking a look at the data in the report and especially, the steps on the roadmap. This matters to all of us because, as the authors of Women in the Workplace conclude:

We will all benefit from gender equality in the workplace. Companies that leverage the full talents of the population have a competitive advantage. Employees on diverse and inclusive teams put in more efort, stay longer, and demonstrate more commitment. Women and men of all ages benefit from the flexibility to be their best selves at work and at home.



  1. “We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them.”

    So in the meantime, we’ll just keep going at a speed that makes female candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them…because, you know, the girls are used to it.

  2. Karen Skinner, surely you don’t mean to say, “Turnabout is fair play.”

    You have every right to feel that way but I do not think your conclusion follows from the remarks of Lord Sumption. The particular fallacy I identify is the “slippery slope.”