AsSumptions: progress and pace

High Court judge Jonathan Sumption has given his views to the Evening Standard on how fast the legal profession can or should move towards greater gender balance.  In his view it will take a long time (perhaps 50 years, see below), and cannot be rushed without great damage to  the system.  I’m only going by the ES piece, which is risky.  But assuming that the interview is a fair representation of Mr Sumption’s views, I think it raises some very interesting questions.

First, and most important, is the general issue of how far working practices – in this case, amongst the judiciary – are somehow fixed because of the nature of the job, or can be modified.  On the one hand, Sumption is very clear that they are not ideal:

“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.”

So:  this is the way the law works, and that’s why women sensibly choose not to go for these kind of jobs (Paula Principle 5).  At the same time, he accepts that this way of doing things is not immutable:

“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.”

Sumption presumably has an idea of what the ‘right numbers’ are, but doesn’t tell us whether that happens to be the exact current figure.  We need to know. But he is quite right that we need to debate how fast things will and could change.    I’ve argued before that the pace of change is an inherently political issue, especially when it comes to things like greater gender equality, and that part of the politics is the practical challenge of managing change successfully.  So he’s obviously right that there are dangers in trying to move ‘too fast’.    But Sumption seems to think that the pace of change has to be a purely evolutionary one.  In other words, things will simply take their course, and the system will evolve towards an acceptable level of equality.

“You’ve got to be patient. The change in the status and achievements of women in our society, not just in the law but generally, is an enormous cultural change that has happened over the last 50 years or so. It has to happen naturally. It will happen naturally. But in the history of a society like ours, 50 years is a very short time.”

Here is the danger of relying on a newspaper interview.  It may  well be that Sumption outlined the active steps he thinks ought to be taken to achieve a reasonable, though not excessive, rate of progress.  But if he did we don’t hear about these, and ‘happening naturally’ sounds as if  there weren’t any.  Instead, we assume a steady projection of current trends, with an implied 50-year timeline .  My conclusion is that Sumption a) recognises that intervention is possible;  b) warns against it trying to move things along too quickly;  and so c) implicitly at least wants things just to take their course, in some inherent internal process.

People more familiar with the legal profession than I am will have more to say on whether this captures the general feeling within the profession.  There’s clearly a debate to be had about what changes might be consciously and deliberately made to the ‘appalling’ working conditions which discourage women from seeking these top positions.  But the Sumption position illustrates a much wider issue, which goes to the heart of the Paula Principle.

The issue is the extent to which current working practices are determined in advance, as it were, by the nature of the occupation; or can can be adjusted to reflect the availability of competence, and the changing gender composition of that competence .  Some practices are pretty immutable:  it’s hard, for example, to adjust the working hours of those on oil rigs, to make them more family-friendly or even person-friendly.  But are the current working patterns of judges immutable in the same sense?   Is there nothing that could be done without imperilling the culture of judicial public service which Sumption wishes to preserve?

The same question needs to be put across a whole range of occupations where women’s competences are currently under-utilised.  The Paula Principle applies at all levels, and not only to the high-flyers.  But it would be good to know more about how high-flyers – of which Sumption is one of the highest-flying – envisage the pace, and the mechanisms, of social change.


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