A law unto themselves?

October 23, 1998

Why are only 14 per cent of law professors women? asks Clare McGlynn

I first learned that the law is what men say it is, and that lawyers are men, when I was five. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland told me so. A few years later, the same message came through from Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare.

It was a message hammered home years later when I arrived at law school, where my male lecturers assigned me readings from mainly male legal academics. When I began my solicitor's training, it was therefore no surprise that the partners in my law firm were mostly men and that the president of the Law Society was loudly proclaiming that women were better off at home looking after children than practising as solicitors.

On switching from legal practice to university to lecture on law, it did not take too long to hear stories of women law students being sexually harassed, of maternity leave being equated to research leave and of women legal academics being excluded from important policy-making forums.

This is not just my experience but, unfortunately, the experience of many law students, lawyers and legal academics.

Only 14 per cent of law professors are women and three out of every five law schools have no women law professors. Lower down the academic hierarchy the representation of women in law departments improves, with women making up 22 per cent of readers, 40 per cent of all senior (non-professorial) staff, and 49 per cent of all lecturers. Although these figures bode well for the future representation of women (and are higher than in many other subjects), they do mask considerable differences (see table).

So much for statistics. What does all this mean? While the survey is no more than a snapshot, its findings are a starting point for debate, one that has far-reaching implications for women legal academics, legal education, the legal profession and the nature of the law.

It is not hard to see how the shortfall of women academics in some law schools may be having an impact on the legal profession. The profession, having recognised that discrimination against women remains a serious concern, has yet to focus its attention on law schools as a way of solving its problems. Yet, the difficulties facing many women lawyers begin there. It is in law school that the values of the law and legal profession are inculcated. Today's law students become tomorrow's lawyers, academics and judges, ruling on how the law should interact with women's lives. As the number of women legal academics increases, so the law may become more understanding of women's experiences.

Where law students are educated in an environment where there are few women academics, especially professors, certain cultural values become embedded. The absence of women legal academics sends to students important messages about the nature of the law. As United States scholar Mona Harrington has observed: "With virtually all-male faculty, the message that femininity and authority can be combined is not one that women law students frequently receive."

We must begin debating these issues and the signs are promising. The recent establishment of the Women Law Professors Network - formed in response to the continued exclusion of women law professors from important policy-making bodies - suggests a desire for the voices of senior women to be heard at the highest levels of the legal community.

Clare McGlynn is a lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and author of The Woman Lawyer - Making the Difference, Butterworths, Pounds 9.95.

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