Re: Sumption, the law and women

From: V. Mak (
To: [undisclosed recipients]

[Gedachtenwisse­lingen tussen professoren gaan nog wel eens via e-mail, zeker als collega’s zich in andere landen bevinden. Hier een stukje naar aanleiding van een recente uitlating van Engelse Supreme Court-rechter Jona­than Sumption. Dezelfde thema’s zijn ook voor Nederland interessant en geven wellicht stof tot nadenken bij de kerstboom of een goed debat tijdens het kerstdiner…].

Ok, so it’s Friday and I am trying to put together a column – last one of the year already! – for Ars Aequi, a Dutch law journal run by students that some of you may know (C in particular). Though it might be stepping into a snake pit, I am quite tempted to write a response to this:

Jonathan Sumption – controversial guy. He seems incredibly smart, has gained an almost unequaled reputation as a barrister and now supreme court judge, and finds time to write a three volume history of the Spanish crusades in his spare time ( But at the same time: completely immersed in the ‘establishment’ and seemingly willing to defend the system in every way. From the August interview:

‘The supreme court has 12 judges. Ten are privately educated; 11 are white men. For Sumption this is lamentable, but the way of things. The law is a rigorous profession that is bound to produce an elite at its summit. “Any group of the most talented people of their generation is going to be unrepresentative.”’

Okay... but perhaps missing out on some factors? For one, social background might influence the possibilities that people have to enjoy an education and to climb up the social and professional ladder. Remember also the discussions that followed the release of the movie ‘The Riot Club’ last year, although it is hard to tell fact from fiction for those who are far removed from Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club.

And now Sumption’s views on women and the legal profession. So he is basically saying that he is in favour of diversity, but not too fast, because that might diminish the chances of young men to become barristers and judges. From a historical point of view – clever – 50 years does not seem too long to achieve gender equality. Mmm. Although it may be true that these things take time, I would say that it is very unlikely to happen if we do not even acknowledge at this point how much harder it is for certain groups - by the way, not just women but basically everyone who is not a white, probably heterosexual man and privately educated - to be accepted into a profession dominated by people like Sumption.

So, anyway - just wondering if you had heard of this and whether it is being discussed in your circles. Another recent contribution to the discussion is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book ‘Unfinished Business’. Picking up similar themes and also noting that perhaps part of the question is not whether we have certain expectations from men or from women, but also whether the problem may lie in the expectations that prevail in the workplace. If we all think that a good work ethic requires long hours in the office and being the first person there in the morning and the last one to leave, that inevitably puts pressure on everyone to keep that up – and some of us will not be able to do so because we have other things we want to do in life. Not just raising kids, but also just having some sort of work-life balance...

Well, all of that on a Friday so that you hopefully are out of the office and enjoying some spare time. Take care, and see you all soon!



Deze column is eerder verschenen in Ars Aequi december 2015.

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