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Girton's leading women in the judiciary

Poster for the International Day of Women Judges
Photo: United Nations 

Girton, a College originally founded for women, marks International Day of Women Judges on Friday 10 March 2023 by celebrating some of our trailblazing alumnae in Law and looking at some of the career challenges they faced.

A Girton education lies behind a great many firsts! In the legal profession, these include: the first woman Judge, then President of the International Court of Justice; the first woman Judge in the Chancery Division of the High Court and first woman Chair of the Law Commission of England and Wales; the first woman Law Lord, Supreme Court Justice, then President of the Supreme Court; and the first woman to be appointed a Judge of the Commercial Court, then Judge in Charge of the Commercial Court, and subsequently Vice-President of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal. We currently keep in touch with over 700 alumni working in the legal professions, two thirds of them women.

Here we explore the life and work of Lady Arden, Dame Elizabeth Gloster, Lady Hale and Dame Rosalyn Higgins.

During our 150th Anniversary, we hosted Lady Hale, Lady Arden and Dame Rosalyn Higgins in conversation with Fellow in Law and former Vice-Mistress, Karen Lee. They discuss the main challenges they faced during their careers, including suffering from imposter syndrome, the pressures of life in independent practice, and what they think needs to change in law careers.

The Rt Hon Lady Justice Arden DBE PC MA

Lady Arden Lady Arden read Law at Girton College and Harvard Law School and practised at the Bar and became a QC. She was appointed the first woman judge in the High Court’s Chancery Division in 1993, and the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeal in 2018. Amongst other roles, she is an ad hoc judge of the European Court of Human Rights and has published two books. Lady Arden retired in January 2022.

During the Girton150 Women in Law panel Lady Arden recalls the time she was looking for a seat in Chambers, and how a lot of women got the answer 'I'm very sorry you've got wonderful qualifications, but we've got a woman already' or 'all the solicitors are male and we don't think they'd instruct a women'. 

Lady Arden became a Queen’s Counsel. In terms of improvements in methods of promotion, Lady Arden noted that for women it has often been a case of two steps forward, one step back. She mentioned that the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), an independent body, starting in 2006, has to select candidates on the basis of merit, not on the basis of a representative number of men and women. For diversity, its obligation is merely to consider the need to encourage diversity among possible candidates. In its first three years, the number of women appointed went down. However, the position has now changed and there is a promising increase in the number of women being appointed to the senior judiciary.

The full dialogue can be viewed in the Girton150 Festival Women in Law panel video above.

The Rt Hon Dame Elizabeth Gloster DBE PC MA

Lady Gloster"Dame Elizabeth practised as a commercial and Chancery QC at One Essex Court from 1991 until 2004, before accepting an appointment as a High Court judge, becoming the first woman to be appointed a judge of the Commercial Court. She was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2013 and became Vice-President of the Civil Division of that Court in 2016.

Since retiring from the Court of Appeal in 2018, Dame Elizabeth has returned to One Essex Court to practise as a full-time international commercial arbitrator. She has been appointed both as chair and co-arbitrator in a large number and wide range of international arbitrations including insurance/reinsurance, shipping, banking, gas and oil, electricity pricing, construction, joint venture and investment disputes. 

Elizabeth is one of 25 persons listed as willing and able to serve as a member of an arbitration panel under the Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom relating to the UK’s Withdrawal from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community.

In November 2020 she produced her independent investigation's report into the Financial Conduct Authority's regulation of London Capital & Finance plc. In July 2021 she was appointed to the ICC International Court of Arbitration as an alternate member for the UK."

Dame Elizabeth did an exclusive interview for the First 100 Years project, which is building the only digital platform of stories, videos and artefacts dedicated to the history of women in law. She spoke candidly on the challenges she encountered as she took her first tentative steps towards a career at the bar in the seventies.

The video is sponsored by Simmons & Simmons.

The Rt Hon, The Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE PC LLD FBA

Lady HaleLady Hale read Law at Girton College. She was an academic lawyer and law reformer (first woman appointed to the Law Commission in 1984) before becoming a full time judge in 1994, rising through the ranks to become the first (and only) woman Law Lord, then Supreme Court Justice, and later becoming the first woman President of the Supreme Court. She became Visitor of Girton College in 2004 and still holds the position.

In 2019, we held a series of five public lectures to as part of our 150th Anniversary. Our remarkable Visitor inspired our audience with her vision and enthusiasm for '100 years of Women in Law'. The video of the Lecture, as well as a short review from former Vice-Mistress, Karen Lee and an account by the Mistress of the Visitor's Lecture can be found on the link below.

As part of the Girton150 Festival: Women in Law panel, Lady Hale mentioned one of the challenges that women face is during independent practice and the 24/7 working culture, these are pressures that are difficult to combine with normal life. She said that "quite of lot of women go into other sorts of legal jobs, so they go into the government legal service, they go into law teaching and academic work, they go into local government, they go into regulation, there are lots of jobs in regulation these days. There they do great work and their brains are very well used. So one of my great campaigns is for the judicial appointment system to recognise that those are pools in which they should be fishing for judicial appointments just as much as they fish in independent practice and that will be a way of increasing the diversity of the judiciary, not only on a gender line, probably also on ethnic lines, and certainly on professional background lines which I think is really important."

The full dialogue can be viewed in the Girton150 Festival Women in Law panel video above.

More recently, during the End of 'A Great Campaign' Celebrations, Lady Hale was in conversation with Karen Lee, discussing her extraordinary life from her recently published autobiography 'Spider Woman'.

Dame Rosalyn Higgins GBE FBA KC

Dame Rosalyn HigginsDame Rosalyn read Law at Girton College and Yale University. She has held Chairs in International Law at Kent University and the London School of Economics and many other senior positions. She served on the International Court of Justice from 1995-2009, its first woman Judge (elected President in 2006). She was also Legal Adviser to the Chilcot Inquiry on Iraq.

During the Girton150 Women in Law panel Dame Rosalyn speaks of the time she came to Girton, and how she experienced imposter syndrome due to coming from a Grammar School where hardly anyone went on to University and certainly no one went to Oxford or Cambridge. 

In terms of addressing the gender imbalance at the international level, Dame Rosalyn mentioned that quotas are easy to implement, however she is against them because they tend to mean that not the best people are promoted by their government, as all the governments are focused on is that they've numerically got their number of women. She believes a much more transparent appointment or election system is really important, as voters can be reminded of the importance of non-discrimination of representational benches, of bringing women forward, and the system must be open so that capable women will know they can apply.

The full dialogue can be viewed in the Girton150 Festival Women in Law panel video above.